Embracing Design Constraints

Form ever follows function.

Louis Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscraper, espoused this belief throughout his work. He recognized that the purpose of the building, when entering a place with no prior art, had to drive how it would look. With both the technology and audience providing the guidelines within which he would design his now world-renowned buildings.

Top corner and cornice of a building of ornate red terra-cotta tiles with a top floor of round windows and thin vertical members between columns of recessed rectangular windows.
The Prudential (Guaranty) Building in Buffalo, New York. Designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, and completed in 1896.

Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom Sullivan was a mentor, broke from that, bolting chairs to the floor because he felt his vision trumped the homeowners’, and constructing roofs that chronically leaked because the technology of the time was not up to his implementation. The Guggenheim is an example of curators adapting to the otherwise hostile display of art as the art later adapted to the venue.

Form following function carries into more traditional design contexts.

I once reviewed a portfolio where the design student had put together a Hexachrome (six-color) advertisement that was meant to run on four-color newsprint. The designer wanted to push boundaries, but did not understand the functional limitations of printing technology.

I also reviewed a portfolio from another student that designed a three-color flyer to run on a single-drum Risograph (a fancy mimeograph), manually feeding the paper again for each color. The designer had to account for trapping and registration that printed the colors often ¼ inch off from where they should be.

Design is Not Art

Design is not art, though it can become art. Many who look at the cinematic title sequences from Saul Bass would say they are worthy of any gallery. Russian avant-garde art both fed, and was fed by, graphic design from films (early kino) to propaganda posters.

Design serves a goal, often a business need. Sometimes it is to promote an idea or brand, other times it is solely to get people to buy a product, most generally it is about conversions. We may use the emotional effects of design to achieve that, most glaringly in dark patterns.

Portfolio reviews in school can make this obvious. Questions might be framed around what you were trying to achieve, how your approach satisfies a goal.

Design is as much a trade as any other job. Portfolio and design reviews in architecture, for example, tended to focus on goals and outcomes (from my own experience). The aesthetics of a design existed to serve that objective and had to justify their presence in that context.

When I was on the board of the local ad club and had most of the local and regional agencies as clients, I found they used portfolios to evaluate a job candidate’s ability to solve problems and address constraints — from weird client requirements, to budgets, to limitations of the target medium. I did the same when I hired designers.

Constraints Are Part of Design

Constraints have been shown to generally improve innovation. Giving targets and parameters helps ensure a team is working in unison. Identifying what is out of bounds can further focus that team.

The next time you struggle with innovation, take a look at your constraints structure. Instead of blaming them, frame them as creative challenges.

Google used to see great returns on applying constraints, as its formerly-minimalist search page demonstrated. Arguably its current perception as keeper of heavy and unwieldy product offerings corresponds to its loosening of those constraints.

Constraints can actually speed development. For instance, we often can get a sense of just how good a new concept is if we only prototype for a single day or week. Or we’ll keep team size to three people or fewer. By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment.

Alex Chen wrote how Accessibility drives aesthetics as a response to a less charitable take on accessibility and aesthetics.

They review some great examples of how accessibility affordances have created more popular and successful outcomes, including OXO’s Good Grips line (which I reference in my own training) and the GOV.UK design system.

I add the Aeron chair, status symbol of the dot-com boom and bust, and now de facto chair in many tech start-ups. Its design came from lessons learned creating seating for people with mobility impairments who were confined to a single chair all day.

We cannot discard some constraints at will. We can too easily move from a useful design to a harmful one when we ignore known limitations in the medium or our audience.

Without well defined and respected constraints, a design process is doomed to spiral out of control, miss the proper objectives and will mostly result in useless, sometimes even harmful artefacts.

Raising Objections

When a person or team resists making a change to their design effort because of an accessibility requirement, it helps to drill down to the core objection.

Does the designer think it is ugly, even when others disagree? Does making the change create more work? Has the designer become attached to it as their work, instead of a thing solving a defined need?

We should all take pride in our work, and we should all take ownership of the outcomes of that work where we can, but we should not use it as a proxy for our ego. It is normal, but not the objective. Be wary of the designer who is too emotionally attached to a design or even considers it art.

This is not an extreme view. This is the norm. In industries that rely on or produce for human use or interaction, form ever follows function. If function tries to follow form, failure is likely to take its place.


None of this argument is new. As Mike Monteiro said in 2012, A designer solves problems within a set of constraints.

When we are building design systems, color palettes, pattern libraries, style guides, and even entire frameworks, we have to understand that we are solving a problem for people. They, in turn, are solving problems with the tools we have provided. Tools that should be purpose-built to allow them to be successful.

Accessibility is just one of many necessary design constraints. It must be held in the same regard as others, since failure to account for it means failure in the objective of the design. I just wish those giving design awards agreed.

Underlines Are Beautiful

No comments? Be the first!

Leave a Comment or Response

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>