Embracing Constraints

In the world of design, constraints have always been a stimulus for finding a better way to do something

Ross Haddow

Give me the freedom of a tight brief

David Ogilvie

In the last week we have all found ourselves living in a time of extraordinary change, challenges and constraints.

There are many ways to respond and I am sure many of you have already gone through the stages of grief – from denial and anger, through bargaining and depression to grudging acceptance.

Constraints are normally talked about in negative terms – people normally complain about a lack of time, money and other resources. But it is also true that, for those who embrace constraints and indeed seek them out, they act as a focus for clear strategic thinking.

In the world of design, constraints have always been a stimulus for finding a better way to do something. Constraints allow you to show what you’re made of.

As Ingvar Kamprad famously said, "To design a desk which may cost $1,000 is easy for a furniture designer, but to design a functional and good desk which shall cost $50 can only be done by the very best."

But is this true when constraints are not a choice?


Spielberg’s malfunctioning mechanical shark meant that its use in Jaws had to be massively cut back. Yet, it is the implied presence, not the sight of the protagonist that creates the movie’s unforgettable suspense and impact.

Or Google’s homepage design, constrained by Larry Page’s limited design and development skills when trying to get his start-up off the ground.

Or perhaps Henri Matisse’s new direction with paper and scissors near the end of his life, producing some of his most iconic work, when crippled and forced to work from his bed.

The worlds of business and art are littered with tales of the protagonist seeing the beauty in constraints and achieving extraordinary feats.

There is no getting around the fact that, in the coming months, money is going to be tight, staff resources will be limited, and markets will be in turmoil.

But perhaps this presents a unique opportunity to question the way in which things have been done - and to break the path dependencies that no longer do us any favours.

By embracing the constraints forced on us we can achieve breakthroughs that were hidden when times were good - a stimulus to find a better way of doing things and a way to come out the other side fitter than before this crisis hit.