Let's say you want to produce an exciting design for a next-generation home electronics device. Which scenario will help you make this breakthrough happen?
1. You plan to generate a lot of "blue sky" ideas so you keep constraints at bay. There is no technology constraint or clearly defined market opportunity. The sky is the limit.
2. You see the opportunity to design the next great tablet device that does everything an Apple iPhone can do, but with a bigger screen. It is a wonderfully clear and focused goal.
Will either scenario get you great ideas, lead to a successful design, and all of the fame and fortune that goes along with it? Not likely.
Even when a design problem is open-ended, your success depends on your ability to align your design goals with existing market and technology constraints.
When a design problem is unconstrained and ambiguous, I often see people retreat to what they know to solve the problem. They rely on a familiar practice or their own expertise. Unfortunately, they usually create something that's been done before. The situation gets really ugly when these unoriginal ideas snowball into a design solution that enters the market looking a lot like a bazillion other products.
Don't be fooled into thinking that you will be more successful by trashing constraints. Every design problem hungers for constraints. Don't proceed until you can clarify them. If you can't create your design goals from a few of these constraints, then chances are good that your ideas will miss the mark. Don't ignore information in a misguided effort to free yourself of limitations.
The second scenario isn't any better. You'll probably fail at that too. When a problem is very constrained, there is no opportunity to question the business strategy, market landscape, or technology opportunities. If you fall in lock-step with the goal and constraints, you will miss the contextual cues that are critical to making good design decisions. How will the product be used? Who will use it? What are the emotional, cultural, social, and environmental impacts of the product?
The trick is to find the sweet spot between these two extremes of a highly open and a highly constrained design problem.
If you are faced with a design problem that is not constrained, then look to your business strategy, market, and technology opportunities for guidance. The more concrete the goal, the more creative you can get with your design processes. If you are faced with a design problem that is very constrained, look for ways to stretch those constraints by asking yourself why these goals and limitations are important to respect. Then change them.
I think it's human nature to do what we know when faced with an unfamiliar situation. On the other hand, we can apply more creative practices to a highly constrained goal--but the goal might be wrong. Sadly, both approaches will lead to a result that is common and irrelevant. Don't let the gravity of our natural tendencies pull you in. If that happens, you are doomed to fail.
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Ken Fry is the design director at Artefact, where he's worked on projects for a variety of clients including Microsoft, Intel, Panasonic, Apple, SONOS and John L. Scott Real Estate. He started his career as a designer for MSN and Microsoft Works and quickly assumed a leadership position on user experience teams for Microsoft products such as hardware, Works Suite, and Encarta.
He has earned industry awards, including the BusinessWeek IDEA award, Design Zentrum Red Dot, and ID Magazine Annual Design Review. Ken teaches design courses at Seattle University and his alma mater, the University of Washington.