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Constraints don’t need to become restraints

Constraints don’t need to become restraints

It’s difficult to imagine a more hackneyed cliché than “let’s turn our weaknesses into our strengths” but sometimes, just sometimes, trite phrases testify to truisms.  In the hands of the skilled designer, constraints don’t need to become restraints – to the contrary they can become the features of the design.

This was brought home to me a few years ago when we commissioned a talented architect to redesign our new office.  We had signed on the dotted line for a top floor office on the city centre site of a former department store.  The space was full of character, with lovely features and fittings including a very ornate staircase and liberal use of century–old brass.  However, it was a curious shape (to put it kindly) and had five vertical pillars at random inconvenient places across the floor area and partly due to its age there weren’t many readily available electricity sockets.

We designed several amateurish floor plans to explore how we might get our desks, a coffee dock, some soft seating and a meeting room into the space – a very average game of office Tetris if you will, with the kind of results you might expect during the interior design round of The Generation Game.  Eventually we recognised we were more than a little out of our depth and called in the man.  The man in this instance was a friend of a friend who visited the space, looked around, listened to our brief, went away for a few days, and came back with a floor plan which was brilliantly simple and brilliantly clever in equal measure.

The difference between his efforts and ours?  We tried to work around the pillars and other constraints, trying to pretend they weren’t there; he baked the pillars into the heart of his design and designed desk pods (along with the electricity needed to power each pod) around them.

He had quite literally turned the major weaknesses of the room (its shape and cumbersome pillars) into design features (using nooks and crannies for meeting space, and the pillars as a focus for the desk pods).

I was reminded of this recently when speaking to a colleague of mine who had extensive experience designing touch–screen kiosks – the type you might find in McDonalds when ordering a burger or in Argos when buying some electronic goods.  He was explaining how constraints guided the design process.  The contextual enquiry which founded his design work revealed a number of relevant environmental and human factors which needed to influence the design:

  • The user often had other shopping with them
  • The user often had children or other family members with them
  • The user was standing
  • The environment is busy with lots of other people coming and going
  • The user covered large parts of the screen with their arm when selecting options with their hands

Those constraints provided my colleague with a north star – a set of environmental factors which needed to be front and centre of his design thought process.

  • The experience needed to be quick – those kids aren’t going to stand still forever
  • The kiosk needed some space around it – the user preferred to set their bags down as they used the machine
  • The key controls of the interface needed to go at the top of the screen – as the user’s hand covered large amounts of the bottom of the screen when reaching to use the interface

Constraints are often the designer’s friend because identifying them provides vital environment and contextual clues which will help a design thrive in the wild.

Example of constraint types include the following:

  • Commercial – project budget and the revenue model which underpins the product
  • Compliance – the regulatory framework within which a product needs to work, for example data protection, financial advice
  • Functional – the feature set available to the software that is being designed, that is the things which it can do
  • Software stack – the capability of the underlying software and CMS system on which the product is built
  • Accessibility – the ability of users with speech, sight, hearing or sensory issues to interact with the design
  • Style – the integration of design patterns and “house style” for the suite of products being designed
  • User IT literacy – the degree to which the users of the system are confident or competent with IT, or not

Of course, sometimes constraints need to be challenged, and new technology can eradicate legacy constraints in a heartbeat.  But skilled designers, when they encounter an immovable constraint, don’t try to push it to the edge or design in spite of it – they put it in the centre of their solution and design because of it.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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