Design Constraints

What we call “good design” is as much about shaping human behavior and leading people around like cattle as it is about building useful, sturdy, beautiful objects that enrich our lives and allow us to extend our potential. People in design circles always assert that the purpose and use of a well-designed object should be apparent in the object’s own form. Someone who is reasonably acquainted with the practical context within which the object would be used should be able to identify easily how the object is to be used and what it might be used for. Additionally, the object should not accommodate uses that deviate from its intended purpose. This is so anyone equipped with the object does not confuse its function with that of another object or apply the object on the incorrect job. It is a reality of industrial design that when a designer sets out to design an item for practical use, she not only constructs the object to be optimally suited for the job she has in mind but also makes the item especially useless for anything else besides that job. These restrictions that are built in to the item’s form are called “design constraints.”

Donald Norman, one of the most influential writers in modern industrial design, uses the example of a thirteen-piece Lego motorcycle to illustrate the operative advantage of restrictive design constraints:

“…the appropriate role for every single piece of the motorcycle is unambiguously determined… people could construct the motorcycle without any instructions or assistance, although they had never seen it assembled” (The Design of Everyday Things, 84).

The motorcycle’s possible methods of assembly are limited sufficiently that there can be one correct arrangement and no others. Its design succeeds perfectly in enforcing the designer’s intended assemblage of the parts. However, as a toy, especially a Lego toy, the motorcycle obviously a failure. Its design constraints are so strict that they preclude play and improvisation in the item’s construction. If one can only build the toy within the parameters specified by the manufacturer, what is gained from buying the item disassembled? It seems to me that design constraints are actually sabotaging the effectiveness of the motorcycle as a play object. But I think this criticism could be extended beyond toys into practical objects and tools. Imposing a kind of deterministic plan of possible interactions an individual can have with an object is narrow, and it is coercive. It delimits the range of possible action available to a user and thwarts substantive improvisation. It suggests that the designer knows better than the practitioner and goes further to enforce that assertion by restraining the practitioner from accomplishing anything more than what the designer has already envisioned.

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