Embracing the Power of Constraints: An Interview with Shay Howe
Let’s face it, putting limits on ourselves is hard. As designers, developers and generally creative individuals we’re not unfamiliar with the idea of limits and constraints. We deal with them every day. Most of the time, constraints can be perceived as being negative–they represent an imposed set of restrictions that seem to limit our natural drive to create and innovate. But do constraints really inhibit our creativity? Shay Howe doesn’t think so.
The Chicago-based designer believes that the act of applying constraints to our work can be liberating, allowing individuals and teams to be more productive. When reasonable limits are set, Shay asserts, constraints can actually lead to a process of growth and the opportunity for innovation. It is through this process of employing, and operating within, constraints that we become more consistent, providing a better experience for our users.
We asked Shay to talk with us a bit more about his ideas on constraints:
Constraints are normally viewed as being negative. Why do you see them as being positive?
Constraints have a bad reputation for multiple reasons, however the most common reason I hear is that constraints hinder our capabilities. I disagree with this rationalization. Constraints force our attention, and make us focus. They provide guidance for what’s relevant, or topical, and shine light on what’s off course.
Kristian Bjørnard put it best when he said “Do not confuse working within constraints with making sacrifices.”
You see operating within constraints as necessary for teams to be more effective decision makers. Tell us how.
Without constraints teams often struggle to make decisions. Given an open road, how do we come to conclusions? Improve consistency? Deliver an amazing experience? Know where to spend our time? Or more importantly, know when to say no?
When the possibilities are endless, and constraints are near invisible, I’m not convinced it makes the decision process any easier. Constraints are great for narrowing our options, most commonly those not beneficial to us. Now, we can examine decisions more precisely, focusing on the important aspects of it. In return we make decisions faster and easier.
Do you think operating within constraints leads to personal, professional growth? How so?
Absolutely! As designers and developers we understand the power of limits, and constraints offer the perfect opportunity for growth and innovation.
Specifically, constraints stretch our limits. We may not be happy about it but from time to time we need to confront our weaknesses. We’ll learn something new, double our strengths, and be more confident.
Designer, Drew de Soto, talks about how his team uses time constraints as a method of initial idea generation and iteration for projects, and how it is a successful method within his studio. Would this be considered an effective way to start a project, Why?
It would, and it’s commonly a way I start my own projects.
Given a limited amount of time we have to be creative and productive out of the gate. We need to hustle. Considering each and every possibility within a project isn’t productive. Using time as a constraint, we’re sure not to waste resources on growth that doesn’t serve purpose.
Other than time, are there other types of constraints that could benefit interactive teams?
Limits, be it on time our elsewhere, make great constraints.
For example, Twitter has constrained their product to only allow 140 characters per tweet, the original limit of a text message. All of their decisions and features are made with that constraint in mind. Along the same lines, Google has constrained their homepage to include no more than 28 words at a time. It’s a constraint that creates simplicity and focus around the world’s most popular webpage.
When it comes to mobile, constraints can be found everywhere. We have constraints around screen size, bandwidth, battery life, orientation, and so forth. Use those constraints to your benefit and let them help shape the experience of your website or product.
Your earlier sessions at WebVisions have focused on collaboration models, how do the ideas of constraints fit in with that concept?
Collaboration, more than we want to admit, is difficult. It supports ambiguity, conformity, invulnerability, laziness, and indecisiveness, amongst other issues. Constraints, though, help us break those issues down.
The constraint of gathering individuals of different backgrounds, experiences, and interests makes sure we’ll compliment, rather than replicate, each others abilities. The constraint of using meetings to exchange ideas, not generate them, makes sure our ideas are sound as we better evaluate them after thought, not when first encountered.
It’s foolish to suggest collaboration is always detriment without constraints, but constraints are incredibly helpful in overcoming the pitfalls of collaboration.
How can a leadership team start utilizing constraints to motivate and organize their teams?
Constraints will help ensure productivity and leaders should work with their teams to define the boundaries of a challenge. Then, the leaders should step back and allow their teams to respond with the best ideas based on the given constraints. In time, a team with passion and persistence will find exponential success.