Restrictive design

When we speak about design, it is surprising how often we mean creativity and idea exploration. The nature of design is unlimited and mystique—it's a world of known and unknown, visible and invisible, a world with unclear and even non-existing boundaries, which only a naive designer might try to explore in the hope to prove that the impossible can be converted into the tangible. Such wide thinking is very stimulating and beneficial, but it can also be a waste. With brainstorming under constraints, we can generate ideas more effectively. But we also need to restrict ourselves throughout the execution path that will lead to the final design—the intended result of the idea. Very often, we lose ourselves in the details of going through the path, without noticing that we peaked all possible indicators. In the name of the end result, we allow ourselves sloppy execution, not being assertive enough of the context in which individuals and teams should operate. In order to be suitable to our current project or situation, our actions need to be clearly prioritized.

How we work can be affected in many ways and they need not always have to do with resources like time or money. For instance, it might be a good idea to limit the expenditure of energy during the day and use it more wisely where it can bring the most value. Running wildly might not give the best results at the end of the day. Communication within a team can also be limited, so that members quickly discuss multiple issues together and return back to work as opposed to having frequent chats on small things. Collaboration can also foster creativity when people work in pairs for a limited time and then change their partners.

The restrictions we apply to our work can be desired and undesired. Before we choose a particular, limiting direction, our environment restricts us, because we are part of it. With restrictive design, we try to create in a way that is more harmonious with our surroundings, without allowing them to destabilize our focused effort. At the same time, we don't rely on foreign resources that weren't acquired in a sustainable manner. There is no way in which additional resources would restrict us to the point in which we will be forced to improve our efficiency, so they could work against us. Even if we need to learn how to live within available restrictions, we must constantly try to lift them up through our work.

Restrictive design seeks higher cost-effectiveness. We ask how we can do less things better instead of doing more, but low-quality things. So we can't say that responsive design is restrictive, because we have to deal with more breakpoints, more devices and more browser tests. But if we ask ourselves how we could possibly finish a project in ten days instead of fifteen without sacrificing quality, we might find potential problem areas that wouldn't be visible otherwise.

Restricting our options where they can be very diverse, promising and tempting can be challenging, but it can lead to a more homogenous and consistent work since we have to deal with fewer variables. By eliminating over-designing, we can finish more projects. This is why not designing can't be separated from design.

It's easier for restrictive design to work in isolation, which allows us to experiment and learn faster from it, getting enough feedback early to move in the right direction. A minimum viable product is created in a very restricted way, but very often, the "today and now" mentality can be a sign of inability to delay gratification, which—in the long-term—will always lead to mediocre products, since they weren't a result of a systematically developed, thought-out concept. It's rare that a product created in a day could survive market exposure; feedback in itself isn't sufficient to change this. Working within a set of constraints doesn't always have to mean "minimum", especially when clients tend to prefer "maximum".

There are many ways in which we can introduce restrictions in our work. For instance, styleguides specify the look and feel a design should follow. We might choose to restrict the variety of loops in our code or try to express ourselves in less lines for better readability. If we do the simplest thing suboptimal, we'll have to multiply the effect when working on a bigger site, so that the initial, invisible lack of restrictions gradually scales to become more visible. Fewer tags in the markup allow for more immediate content rendering to the end user, leading to a subjective perception of a faster site. Content restricts design too, since we organize the latter around the most important thing on the screen. Page length can also be shortened; decreasing the number of alternations between different stories during scrolling can improve clarity. If we know that most images are heavy-weight, we can restrict their use for when they make sense and amplify our content. Does the image emphasize the content or vice versa?

Restrictive design means reluctant design, or not doing more than needs to be done, thus avoiding waste. Unconstrained projects highlight inefficiencies in our approach and we start seeing more and more smoke coming out from our machine that doesn't directly relate to output. But how can we decide what could work in restricted mode when we haven't experimented enough? Isn't an experiment by definition unrestrictive? It can help us see how we can make things of less (interconnected) parts, which is the ultimate design, because with more parts everyone would be able to do so. In a sense, design can be truly "labeled" design when it solves a problem more efficiently (and correctly) than before. Design isn't only about the "this" in "this wasn't possible before", but also a personal characteristic or ability to reduce previously experienced complexity by not violating personal, self-imposed restrictions and indicators.

A portfolio of restrictions isn't necessary a bad thing to have. It can be very versatile due to its similarity to a pattern library and its project-components can be applied with less effort to a more diverse set of future projects. It isn't as specialized and specific to be considered useful only by a few clients.

Restrictive design isn't showy or pretentious; it's rather quiet. People who practice it, put effectiveness on pedestal, knowing that beauty lies in the simplicity of the solution as a whole and not just in the visual design, however exceptional it might be.

By trying to delight people, we often invest disproportionate effort, which can limit our future ability to work. By being restrictive about how we execute, we start to see through the limits of our ability, realizing that extraordinarily simple is almost as hard as extraordinarily beautiful if we abstract away the need to make both usable.

In the past it was easier to hire many designers and finish projects faster, but in a less efficient manner, simply because resources were abundant. But now we see that it is much harder to defend these positions with less resources once they are firmly established. Restrictive design doesn't have excessive ups and downs, it is moderate under all kinds of circumstances, even if it means to move slower than the majority. It is something we practice both in good and bad times, no matter what—a diminished activity instead of fluctuating reactivity. Because it seeks to minimize the effect of resources on us, it means that it isn't just for a small circle of people, but for everyone—even people, who don't yet perceive themselves as designers. But it's only through controlled experiments that we find who we are.

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