Constraints: your new best friends

Guard railEvery day I hear or read about designers lamenting the creativity-depriving horrors of constraints.

“I had to follow the style guide.”

“The client’s color palette consisted of orange, burnt orange and clementine.”

“We don’t use acronyms.”

These unholy edicts create such a chokehold on our designs that it takes every last fiber of our being to admit to actually having been involved with said work. The constraints “forced” me to do it a certain way – with which, of course, I wholeheartedly disagreed!

This is a stale argument. Constraints are everywhere – in every project. There is no project that exists, not even your own personal art projects, that don’t conform to some level of constraint. These constraints don’t, in fact, act as creativity blinders but instead should help us focus our efforts into creating the greatest experience possible within those constraints.

In effect, these “guard rails” keep your ideas grounded in brand-based reality, user expectations and the consistency that the bit of work you’re contributing requires in order to fit with a greater whole experience. In most cases we are not undertaking full site teardowns and redesigns. We’re adding to or modifying a piece of an existing site or application. The pieces we’re contributing to these broader experiences are made that much more successful by conforming to the constraints defined by the existing product. Screen widths, color palettes, behavior rules, copy style guides all work in context to ensure the application conforms to its current legal, business and experience rules. It’s these constraints that keep us on that track. Carte blanche would mean a Frankenstein-like experience made up of the unique, unconstrained fingerprints of each designer to ever touch it.

By narrowing down the options available to the designer, constraints also bring us to the most viable design faster. Many design explorations are removed as options simply based on the framework of the existing experience. This laser-like focus on only the viable design patterns and options perhaps gives us a more limited toolkit but, like McGyver, we can pretty much make magic happen even with these limitations.

Next time you’re faced with a new project built within existing guidelines, remember that these constraints will ultimately make your work more successful, efficient and cohesive. Constraints are you new best friends.


About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is a lean thinking and design evangelist, spreading the gospel of great team collaboration, product innovation and evidence-based decision making. Jeff is an author, speaker and thought leader on the future of product development and design, often teaching workshops or giving talks on building cultures that support teamwork and innovation. Jeff co-founded Neo Innovation, a lean/agile product firm in NYC. Prior to that, he led the UX design teams at TheLadders and Web Trends. Earlier he worked with and led small teams of software designers at AOL. He is the co-author (with Josh Seiden) of Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience and the upcoming (Harvard, 2016) Sense and Respond (
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