Can you design without limits?


Dear readers: In response to our post Eight design tips for the Web, reader Jay Leek sent the following note, which is worth a post of its own.


Jay writes: This is a great primer on visual literacy for the Web. As you point out, many of these tips should be familiar to print designers, but their disciplined application has never been so critical. Many of the rules of print design were just asking to be broken (always intentionally and beautifully, of course!). The Web, for all of its incredible flexibility, actually demands more discipline from the designer.

So I started musing on this idea and a bunch of thoughts came to mind. This brief note is just to say that the following ideas need a lot of baking, but having written them, why not send them! Pretty much stream of consciousness from here on out . . .

Funny. All through my print career I found restrictions freeing. A set of fonts and a few required images would result in an explosion of inspiration. A blank sheet of paper, on the other hand, well, you know about those! Now we have the Web, the most versatile medium in history (blank sheet of paper cubed?) and we must be more limited than ever in our approach to its use. There must be an inverse equation in that somewhere.

When you can do anything, you must (or will?) do nothing. When you can do nearly everything, you must do very few things. When you can do three things, you must do at least nine things with them (as much with them as you can, anyway). When you can do nothing, is everything possible?

Blank sheet of paper = paralysis = can do nothing = everything remains possible . . . hmmmm . . . .


Readers, what do you think? Do you find unlimited options liberating or paralyzing?


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22 Responses to Can you design without limits?

  1. Xavier says:

    I was told the following story by a friend who taught a course on video art in China. The video cameras he gave the students were probably the first they’d laid their hands on. The assigment was to make a one-minute video on a subject of their choice. After a week, no progress whatsoever had been made. After some discussion and some thought, he restricted the assignment: the one-minute videos should revolve around potatoes. Within a few days, the students had finished the assignment with funny entries like The Cycle of the Potato Tree (with potatoes growing on the branches), someone rolled up in a rug wriggling to catch a potato with his teeth, etc.

    The same applies to food. The pizza was created in poor southern Italy with minimum ingredients and loads of creativity. Once it was exported to abundant countries such as the U.S., the restrictions were relaxed and the pizza underwent a few transformations that did not do it a lot of good. The first victim of abundance (or freedom in this discussion), is creativity.

  2. Sarah R. says:

    Paralyzing. I need a source of inspiration to design. My response to a blank sheet of paper is a black void in my head. Give me a line on that paper and now we’re talking . . .

  3. Unlimited. Restricted. It’s all the same to me. It’s hard.

    I’m much more of a writer than a designer, and when I look at a blank sheet of paper as a writer, it’s exciting, and it’s easy to get started and I don’t need much inspiration. I’m always ready to go . . . in any of many various directions…on my own or with client direction.

    But give me that same blank sheet of paper as a designer, and I’m lost.

    But not all is lost. I keep my entire “Before & After” collection (all the way back to Volume 1 Number 1), within easy reach, and that’s where I find my inspiration.

    I search through my self-created electronic index of subjects . . . and also just start flipping through the well-worn paper pages . . . and before too long I feel the black cloud of “blank sheet depression” start to lift, and I’m off and (maybe not running) but at least I’m off and going.

    The blank sheet of paper creates design paralysis. The friendly confines of “think this way” and “do this and not that” of “Before & After” are my liberation.

  4. Joan Auclair says:

    Limits are the place to put my feet, for jumping off. Usually they’re client-imposed. My own limits are not as clear-cut to me, so designing without external limits is more difficult for me.

  5. Karen says:

    I just had a funny experience in my photography class along these lines. My assignment was to use the shutter to
    1. Stop motion
    2. Blur the subject
    3. Use panning to blur the background

    I looked at the examples, and my mind went doooooooo (blank). I headed for the faucet like the book showed, then to the street for a car, and . . . blur the subject? I’ve always avoided blurring things on purpose! The faucet had already been done, so I eventually gave up on this idea. My husband needed to get something at the shore, so I took my camera. It was awesome! No more block. I stopped a giant wave with all sorts of spray and a seal in front with shutter speed. I was trying to photograph a guy jogging, but he looked up — guess he sensed being watched . . .

    I didn’t like the idea of the “whole” subject blurred — just couldn’t do it — seems wrong. So I got my husband to ride the stationary bike and blurred his feet on the pedals — I actually liked the result. For panning, I tried about a hundred times and went back to my third try that I liked best.

    What did I learn from this?
    1. Get outside of magazine articles and what you expect to see that’s already been done.
    2. If a rule or preference is holding you back, find the compromise inside yourself that works for you.
    3. Sometimes first tries are pretty good.
    4. Go someplace new and take pictures.

    I may be a little odd, but I like it when things are open — and I overcome my obstacles. But for web design, I want to know all the details about the purpose of a site and who needs what from it.

  6. tim gauthier says:

    I fully agree with this comment. I have even mentioned it to some non-designer types, and they don’t seem to get it. The restrictions cause you to find new ways to use old things.

    I know someone out there is making a universal web design framework, and now I think someone needs to come up with restrictions and rules that force us into some new conventions that help build a better web. Ones that we can use when no one else is providing them.

    I also find with a blank paper that I can start by scribbling, then looking away and coming back. Often I have something come out of it :-)

  7. Droolcup says:

    Lack of limitation in this sense I find paralyzing. Less truly leads to more. The prime object is focus, both in creation and in where you want to guide the audience. You can spend too much time/effort seeking a direction without some sort of imposed limits.

    If you think this way: multiply all possible colors by all possible shapes by all possible fonts by all possible backgrounds… you get something too big to imagine let alone shape into coherence.

    Wonder what John McW thinks?

  8. Randy Martin says:

    I’m an editor. Give me bad words, poor sentences, clunky layouts, poor logos, and I’m off. I can fix it quickly. But, I don’t much like blank pages.

    When that’s what I’m given, I ask questions. It’s my experience that the clients have the answers, they just don’t know it. It’s my job to listen to them and give them what they want. Not necessarily what they ask for, but what they really want.

    That said, my designs are seldom “out there.” I’m more of a clean, solid sort of designer. My stuff may not win awards, but it does get read.

  9. Len Williams says:

    There are an infinite number of ways of designing any web page, ad, brochure, magazine, etc. However, creativity and “bells and whistles” that are used for no purpose are distractions and should be avoided.

    In all my years as a designer I’ve used the following guidelines:

    1. Determine the overall message you want the ad, web page, etc., to communicate. Make sure you define exactly what this message should be. It will be the most important information you want the person reading the piece to come away with.

    2. Use the main message above as the focal point for everything: color choices, typefaces, images, layout, etc.

    3. If the design choices you make don’t forward the main message, don’t use them.

    4. Never use “cool technology” such as Flash, videos or animations, etc., if they don’t specifically forward the main message.

    5. Keep the design simple, easy to read and elegant. Using too many distracting elements will disperse and confuse your viewers and will bounce them out of your design.

    6. The important main message should be the largest thing on the page. Secondary information should be smaller, and so on down to the least important info being the smallest on the page. Size should determine importance.

    7. Test your designs by showing them to the same types of people who are the intended audience for your design. Get their feedback. If they have questions or are disinterested, get them to tell you about it and then redesign, rewrite and relayout until the design delivers an instant positive communication.

    8. The only reason an ad, web page, brochure or other graphic design exists is to deliver a communication that is easily understood and agreeable to the viewer. With this in mind, it’s much easier to determine which technologies to use and which to throw away.

    9. Creativity should involve figuring out how to make a message more easily understandable. Creativity is not about being “new” or “different” for its own sake. If you use a bell or whistle, ask yourself the question: “Does this help get the message across, or is it a distraction from the message?”

    9. Just because you can do something clever and innovative doesn’t mean you should. If it doesn’t forward the main message, get rid of it.

    I hope this is helpful.

  10. Lesley Beattie says:

    “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” – Albert Einstein

    From the comments posted so far, it seems that most people are happier working with some form of imposed limits. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be creative, but I hold with Einstein’s sentiment. Without limits, we have to push ourselves more and exercise our imagination, which is more likely to result in original thought.

    I also agree that yes, less is more — fewer limits means more options, and this seems to lead to the tendency to overdo things. BUT, less can also be less if we want it to be (less conventional, less structured, less content, less clutter . . . ). It’s up to us as designers to edit the options, and I would rather have the creative freedom to make this choice.

  11. Nelson Tavares Matias says:

    Designers must break their linear ways of thinking messages. E-paper or physical paper isn’t the issue. Restrictions makes the brain work better. It hurts, but the results are much more interesting for the clients (first) and for our sense. Thanks to all.

  12. Maryellen Carew says:

    Thanks to all for these great discussions (and to Mr. McWade for Before & After!). My first “Aha!” from the idea that limitations lead to — or even force — more creativity came from being in a ship’s galley (kitchen) where everything had to have a secure place, and places were few and not kitchen-shaped. We went home and rethought our tiny apartment kitchen, making it more efficient and “larger” by more creatively using the space. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is the cousin to this idea. So maybe, next time a project doesn’t have enough limitations to help me focus, I’ll impose some! A great (re)learning. Thanks!

  13. I think that the paralysis comes from the abstract nature of the limitlessness of the blank sheet of paper. The human brain needs concrete stuff to work properly.

    In their book, Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath give two, short 15-second assignments. The first assignment is to write down as many things that are white in color as you can think of in 15 seconds.

    If you want to try it yourself, then do it now before reading on. Come on — try it. Now.

    (Are you sure you do not want to try it?)

    The second assignment is to write down as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of.

    Most people will find it’s as easy or even easier to think of white things from their refrigerator than white things in general. Chip and Dan Heath write that concreteness is a way of mobilizing and focusing the brain.

    Selecting a small number of items — like fonts, images, ideas or colors — that you allow yourself to use, or going through the steps in a list, are both methods that make an abstract and blank sheet of paper much more concrete.

  14. Julie Bales says:

    The earlier response from Len Williams could have come out of my head. Who is your audience? What is your message? I design everything as if it is a billboard to be read and understood in three seconds, first. Secondly, I take those limited elements and design for ad, brochure, whatever, layering and expanding only as it supports my message/audience. Editing is the art in communication. I can’t bring myself to Facebook or Tweet because there is just too much noise coming at me that I am expected to sort through.

  15. K. Karman says:

    I’ve been thinking about this concept lately . . . but in other fields. I recently taught a class on Shakespeare. In the class, I tried to have the students go from text to concept — start with the main ideas and themes in the text and use those to determine your production (setting, costumes, lighting, music, etc.). We had just studied Hamlet, and I told them to come back the next week with some production ideas. (At this point, I didn’t want to restrict them with limitations of budget, venue, cast, etc.)

    They came back with absolutely nothing. They couldn’t even decide if they wanted it to be a play or a movie.

    I’ve also been to see a lot of plays lately, and externally imposed limitations make so much difference. An outdoor production set Henry IV part 1 in quasi-modern day because they needed costumes that would be wearable at 60 degrees and at 90 degrees. But Falstaff as a tie-dye-wearing, washed-up hippie WORKED.

    Externally imposed limitations force us to think through EVERY decision and be even more creative.

    I recently had a design client who took a dislike (irrationally, IMHO) to italics. ALL italics. Working with him made me think through my use of typography and select my typefaces more carefully, knowing that I would need something even more versatile if I was denied use of the italics.

    Perhaps that’s why I like limitations — they make me work even harder to get my message across.

  16. David Kunkel says:

    In my experience, if you have no limits on your creativity, it’s because you haven’t asked your client enough questions. If they don’t have any idea what they want, you haven’t asked them the right questions. If they have no preference as to look and feel, then you need to sound them out.

  17. Don Biggs says:

    “The Web has no transcendent rhythm. Everything comes at you differently — flickering, stuttering, demanding. There are few pauses, few silent spaces, little room for contemplation or even real thought. Get in, move around, move on. Hurry. Skim. Jump. Click. Don’t stop. It’s an agitating environment that, unlike a book or a song, has no end. No climax, no closure. There is always another click.”

    The paragraph above from “Eight design tips for the Web” is all but written as poetry. It’s stated from a perspective I can relate to as a static page designer. Its clear, succinct message can be taken sadly, angrily, or as an emotionless statement of fact. I see all three.

    I use to think I had a distinct advantage being a classically trained designer. It certainly helped when I left design directly to pursue a career in selling and ushering in the technology via Apple, Adobe, Altsys and Linotronic in the mid-1980s. As times and tastes have evolved, I confess that I’ve not been as forgiving or open-minded as I should have been, especially when it came to web design. Out of habit, I use to see the internet as nothing more than a series of static images. The reality is that there is no limit to what dynamic image content can deliver. And it’s not only limited to the web. Now kiosk and digital signage are benefiting as extensions and parts of a completely interactive experience. It’s an opportunity for old designers like myself to renew themselves. Thanks for the great words.

  18. Subarna says:

    I learned graphic design the opposite way round, first the tools and then the rules. So when I first completed my Desktop Publishing Diploma with shining grades and complete knowledge of the great applications like PageMaker, Illustrator, Corel Draw, Photoshop, I thought that now everything about design is in my fist. But when I actually sat down to design in my first job and saw the blank page of the document I didn’t know what to design, how to design. Then I came across my first book on Graphic Design “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams and it gave me rules of design simply by the word CRAP (Contrast, Repetition, Alignment and Proximity). Now that white page/empty document excited me so much. Just a simple limit to my imagination by the design rules glided me forward smoothly, and through the years I kept digging for more “limits” so that I could evolve as a graphic designer.

  19. From the time we were little kids, haven’t most of us in our heart of hearts been rule breakers? The temptation to get as close as possible to shattering the rule is simply too much to resist, which is why I believe that highly creative people love a few hard-and-fast rules sprinkled into the mix. It’s the lust for independent thought that fuels our imaginations and drives us to make every project better than the last. Of course, our clients and customers don’t really need to know exactly why and how their well-intentioned directions motivate us toward greater self-expression and a better final product . . .

  20. Karen says:

    Well said : ) Give us rules, and we find the need to break them. Give us no boundaries, and we get a bit lost — then find answers in the search. Maybe that’s what creativity is.

  21. Anne Anderson says:

    No limits is the same as no focus. It’s why we get blocked. A number of my clients have trouble handing over text because they get blocked. I write up something for them as placeholder, and all of a sudden they are able to produce their copy. My stuff can be terrible or trenchant, it does not matter; it’s a starting point.

  22. Cathy says:

    Restrictions, guidelines or parameters?

    It’s all in how you look at it . . .

    Restrictions are guidelines that someone or some group created, because they find that those elements don’t work well. It also helps to reign in chaotic or unrelated design. Restrictions can also work to help build a brand image and feel, and build unity.

    It is human nature to feel comfortable with familiar patterns. If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember when e-commerce first began on the Internet. It was new, so there were few rules and restrictions (guidelines), and there were many experimental and untried methods. Today’s web pages are much cleaner, clearer, and easier to read. The audience has a general idea how the average web page is laid out, how it flows, and they know what to expect and will feel comfortable navigating it.

    Guidelines or parameters give the designer a focus or a starting point. For instance, a painter can start with a square canvas, a round canvas, wood canvas, digital canvas. He can use oil paint, watercolor, or Photoshop. The guidelines or parameters will start the designer in a specific direction. There may be an expected feel for the end result from the parameters, but some talented artists can use these parameters and create unexpected results, which may be good or not good, depending on what is the desired outcome.

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