Designing with Restrictions: How Limitations Can Improve Design

by Alex Fedorov

Recently, my fiancé and I were milling around the Ikea in Stoughton, MA (a pleasant day for a designer), when I noticed an unusual sign hanging from one of the showroom rafters. The message on the sign was something to the affect of ‘Our designers begin with a price and design backwards from there, giving you the most value for your money.’ I immediately began visualizing the process and imagining the types of decision a designer would make differently with such restrictions. I also remembered the famous design mantra “restriction makes great designs” so I also asked myself – what other ways can design restrictions actually improve products?

Starting with Ikea’s restricted dimension of a set price, I began to relay this and other limitations to the field of graphic and web design.

Price. In the web design world it is pretty much a given that less price will yield fewer pages on your website and much less in terms of interactivity or other dynamic feature sets. Usually with a smaller budget, you are left with a 5-7 page brochure site. You’re probably wondering how can this possibly be a benefit to you? Perhaps the benefit lies in the need to really examine the strength of your message and the presentation of the design. If you can engage and interest a potential client with 1-2 pages of unique and meaningful design, then maybe you never needed the 3 databases and the 45 second Flash intro after all. (Insert laugh here). Possibly, your strategy can have more to do with approaching your site from a more iterative stance, adding glossy features down the road if your users benefit from them and the budget allows.

Physical or Virtual Space. One of the age-old restrictions – the restriction of space. Designers often begin conceptualizing within the two dimension of width and height – perhaps this is because we’re so used to handing off finished projects as either 800 x 600 websites or 8.5 by 11 brochures. In any event, space is a reality that can make a serious impact on your design because after all it’s where your design lives. In an effort not to digress into a poor imitation of Steven Hawking, I’ll just say that limited space can force designers (and clients) to make the tough choices about what really matters and what can minimized or pushed off to another area – or be featured at another time. My advice where space is concerned is as follows: if you feel like you design is cluttered and tense because of an overload of design elements, features, promotions and information – ask yourself or the client how these elements can be sorted hierarchically and then rethink ways to minimize the lowest priority items or integrate them into a different page or section. With many sites today, it seems that designers are agreeing that white space is good.

Feature Set. Though not a direct restriction, some feature sets can impact space, price and time causing multiple restrictions to become introduced if the client has a certain budget and launch date in mind. As Robert Glazer of Acceleration Partners says “The challenge with most entrepreneurs creating new web applications is a bloated feature set.” In working with Glazer and Bob Allard of Extension Engine, we have seen first hand the impact that a complex set of features has – particularly on timeline and how the visual design elements should be presented without creating clutter.

Glazer’s advice for entrepreneurs releasing web apps is to keep your feature sets smaller and emphasize the 1-2 things you’re doing differently than your competition – what distinguishes you? As mentioned previously in the Price section, additional features can be integrated into the site if it attracts a user base and in the end – your customers can become the best way to gauge what should be added and what is simply extraneous. As Jason Fried of 37 Signals explained in the Getting Real, 2006 Seminar, a great way to handle adding features onto a web product is to skim several hundred customer feature request emails over time. If one particular feature is being requested again and again, you know what to invest your time and energy into adding.

Corporate Branding Restrictions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – a company’s branding can either make or break the design of its site or marketing collateral. If the company has chosen attractive colors and has an appealing logo, the restriction of matching the color palette and using similar fonts to that of the logo is actually a welcome limitation. In this sense, the designer now has a roadmap to create a set of rules and sensibilities for the project. However, if the logo and color choices are inherently unattractive, this restriction can be daunting and most unwelcome. In a more general sense, corporate limitations can create a style guide that makes the finished product cohesive and harmonious, but ultimately, the initial choices surrounding the company’s branding will have a lot to do with whether the restrictions help or hinder the design process.

Color and typography can also present positive restrictions even if corporate branding is not an issue for the designer to consider. For instance, if the presentation of the design is forced into the black and white realm, the designer will have to rely on clarity and contrast instead of using millions of shades of colors to get their point across. With font choices, although the contrast of using a serif and sans-serif font in the same design can be very appealing, most designers agree that using more than 2 fonts in one design is a very hard feat to overcome.

Speed of Presentation/Viewer Digestion. Last year, I read a study indicating that the average website user decides whether or not a site is visually appealing in far less than 1 second – ‘slightly longer than the blink of an eye.’ That said, the restriction of speed should be considered when designers choose what part of the message they’re trying to emphasize or maximize. Often, if website visitors don’t understand the purpose of the website very quickly, they either become frustrated or disinterested. Other examples of speed-based restrictions are apparent in such advertising mediums as billboards, subway station posters and any other place where designers & marketers have a very limited amount of time to capture the attention of their audience.

In conclusion, restrictions and limitations can often improve design by making designers consider the tough questions – the essence of what they’re trying to communicate. They can serve as a style guide, roadmap or even as inspiration if you’re stuck on a concept. The only question is – are you ready to recognize your restrictions as an advantage?

About Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at...