The Myth of Design Limitations

When I was younger, the notion of true freedom in my design work was the only thing stopping me from achieving the greatest work the world had ever seen. So I thought. In my eyes any limitations set directly by the client — like not liking a bold design concept that I said “added drama,” or, offering a budget being barely enough to buy a loaf of bread, let alone quality assets — were bullshit. If I had my way and the cell door holding back my creativity was opened, then, and only then, could I really shine. I am not quite sure how I actually became the designer I am today with that thinking. Beyond the fact that I probably couldn’t speak to the design principles to explain my decisions at that time, I was also just giving excuses.

A wise project manager once said to me (paraphrasing here), “The best people are the one’s that can take the smallest, shitty project, really run with it to make it their own, and add value to it. In the end, they make it the best shitty little project it can be.” I can see now what he meant. I say this without hesitation; I’ve been on a lot of shitty projects in my day. I don’t care if you are on the Nike account, there have to be at least a handful of pain in the ass people at that company delving out crap projects. Through really pushing the limitations that are on that seemingly meaningless shitty project you challenge yourself to make it a better product. In the end this gets noticed and leads the way to growth. That took a long time for me to really grasp.

Before we view the advantages of limitations, we have to recognize the disadvantages of freedom. The Paradox of Choice is the abundance of options we have in our grocery stores, shopping malls, and in this case, choices for our designs. There are a lot of great things about having so many choices. There is also of course a downside. A plethora of choices increases paralysis due to the overwhelming amount. The more options available, the easier it is to regret your decision and become disappointed with the end result, thinking, “if only I had made another color/font/image choice, this would have been better.” It also increases the chances that you will never have that pleasant surprise. We’ve seen so many designs and amazing websites, it really takes a lot to be impressed. Trying to make every piece of work live up to that standard is impossible. While it’s great to set high goals for improvement, it sometimes holds you back thinking “I’ll never be that good.”

Limitations can make your design project better because it minimizes the amount of decisions and offers a chance to define the design parameters. This way you can focus on the concepts and creating inspirational work. I’ll give an example of setting limitations: This blog. In the beginning of creating the design for this blog I was all over the place. I fell into a few trend traps along the way and sometimes just missed the mark by a mile. Now part of this is a discovery process, failing quickly to find the right solution. Some of it is The Paradox of Choice at work.

I came to a decision to limit myself to a few colors and keep it very crisp, removing all gradients. The image at the top has to represent the entire article in a simple graphic. This changed everything. No longer am I searching around mindlessly for each post until the right image falls into my browser window. I know each and every time what kind of graphic it should be, I just focus on making it fit the story I am trying to tell. Yes, sometimes it is a challenge, but it’s more of a creative one. I always like the feeling of finalizing the article and the consistency that the posts are beginning to have now through these limitations that I’ve set.

There is a certain feeling of freedom and control that this gives you. Limitations don’t always come as self-imposed. For example, if you are doing user research, you’ll likely create personas based on those findings. Those personas become a limitation in the design. But what is great about this is now you know whom you are designing for. So you can remove that piece from your thinking and focus on making the best design for that type of person.

Give limitations a try, you’ll be surprised with how liberating they are.