The Freedom of Design Constraints

The Freedom of Design Constraints

There are three words in design that I’ve grown wary of. Three words that you’d think any designer would be thrilled to hear. Three words that should be exciting and liberating.

Every time I hear “complete creative freedom,” my stomach drops.

The feeling isn’t all bad. “Complete creative freedom” offers the excitement of the blank canvas. The power to produce anything. An outlet for making something truly creative based on my (hopefully brilliant) eventual idea.

“Complete creative freedom” is liberating and nerve-wracking at the same time, for a couple of reasons.

Design is problem solving.

If you ask 100 people “what is design?” you’ll probably get 100 answers. For me, the answers that have something to do with “change” or “problem solving” are correct. Design is not art. It can produce beautiful things, but, to paraphrase Marty Neumeier, design is more about changing the current situation into a more favorable one, and less about arranging objects in an appealing way.

Design works better when there’s a problem to solve or a message to be communicated. Design should be deep in context, and full of empathy for its audience.

“Complete creative freedom” means that a problem has yet to be defined. Any envisioned solution without context or a real problem is not design – it’s artist expression, like illustration or oil painting.

Creative thinking needs constraints.

It’s true that overly rigid brand standards can hold back creativity, but that doesn’t mean all limitations from clients are bad. In fact, it’s often the opposite. The more rules and the more context, the more creative the solutions can become.

A brief that says “design an ad for a car company” is pretty wide open. If the same brief says “design a black-and-white 4×4 ad about how this car is safer for families,” you’ve added context. The designer’s creative brain starts bumping against the walls of the problem, searching for the best way to communicate in that space.

When working on branding for clients, it can feel like the sky’s the limit. Our team’s approach is to identify and define the problem first, establish messaging that begins to solve the problem, and then use design to express the messaging. This allows for creative freedom, but it moves us beyond the goal of “make it look good.” It gives us an end point: does the design communicate what we need it to? Does it have context?

Constraints don’t have to limit creativity. They can fuel it.

“Complete creative freedom” might just mean that the client trusts the designer enough to know that they’re experienced in not just finding a solution, but finding the problem, too. That level of trust is flattering.

Still, my stomach drops a little with every new project, and I’m glad. There’s always a hint of fear with any project – at least on the great ones. It means that there’s risk involved, and I’ll have a lot of thinking to do to solve the problem. It means that the process and the solution will be interesting and exciting. It means that I’m still alive. Or it means that the solution the client really wants is an oil painting.


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Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski is Principal / Creative Director of Atomicdust and is involved with the day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

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