Friday, December 29, 2006


Constraints are liberating. When you have the right limits to push, you can work on pushing them instead of figuring out what the limits are. Give me constraints to struggle against, and I'll probably subvert them somehow; if the ceiling is wide open, I stand agape at it for a while, and then go "now what?", too overwhelmed with possibilities to begin... until I start building my own mental scaffolding around it. There's value in being able to enjoy something quietly, for its own sake, with no constraints or rules or end goals whatsoever, but sometimes we need that extra kick.

Design is a fun way to explore constraints, as it is (in part) the art of finding the correct constraints to gently bound an elegant solution to a problem. Bootstrap started as a series of projects between Eric Munsing and myself experimenting with how far we could push the "time" constraint. Can you go from problem area to polished product design in 60 hours while still getting sleep and homework done? Interface design and education taught me how to design with constraints on knowledge; how do you make something that "teaches" users as they go? Appropriate technology and sustainable design inspire you with constraints on resources. Using only natural materials, using only $25, using tools in your garage, what can you build?

The nice (and dangerous) thing about setting your own constraints is that you can also decide when to relax them. If I'm working in a two-color palette and I know it would be so much better if I could just have three shades, then I can decide whether to relent or force myself to see what I can do with two anyhow. I can excuse myself for not performing perfectly because I could only use two shades, or take 15 minutes, or only lines from Shakespearean plays. I can stop fretting about whether to use blue or purple because I can only work in black and white. I can stop fussing and get down to business.

The ability to design our own constraints is one of the skills I feel is most lacking in education, where so many rules are set for us when we're young. I struggled in my first design classes in college because I hadn't learned how to create my own certainty in the midst of uncertainty. I struggled in my first independent studies and self-managed projects because I was so caught up celebrating the lack of someone else's structure to create my own to replace it.

As children, constraints are largely set for us; 5-paragraph essays, 30 minutes to do a timed test, be home before 7. How far can you go within those bounds? What are the reasons behind them, and can they be challenged? One of the major milestones of childhood is when the kid first realizes that adults are fallible, and their decisions are as well. Another major milestone is when the kid learns how to challenge the decisions of an authority in a respectful and mature manner ("I don't WANT to go to bed BECAUSE!" doesn't count). And then there's the process of growing up, where the young adult is expected to start making more and more of their own decisions and setting their own constraints (in an ideal world; some children are pushed into this far too soon, others are only allowed to do it too late).

How we deal with this freedom defines who we are. Who are you when nobody is watching over your shoulder? Do you keep the same restrictions that your parents or teachers set for no apparent reason ("the 5-paragraph is the right way to write, so I'll use it")? Do you find your own reasons for the rules handed down to you ("I'm cranky if I don't sleep before midnight")? Do you reshape them to fit your own whims ("Mum used to only let me eat one candy a day, but 25 a meal is a more reasonable limit.")? Do you push the boundaries to discover your own ("my parents raised me Lutheran, but I'm studying Buddhism because...")?

I've never tried to use the Mayan instead of the Gregorian calendar to keep track of my appointments simply because I think many other things are more important. I haven't questioned the design of arcane bits of C syntax I've been forced to type because getting my project to work was higher priority at that moment. But I do succumb to the "you must graduate from college" maxim partly because I'm afraid of what it means to look inside and challenge it. Which constraints do you consciously choose to keep unquestioned and why?

If you have control over the walls that hem you, you have control over deciding where you want to go and who you want to be. Constraints don't enslave us; they make us masters of ourselves.

Note: This post has plenty of rough spots and could use a rewrite, but my constraint was that I had to post this and be in bed by 1:30am. So here you go, in all its flawed glory.


Bangtabuck said...
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Anonymous said...

You stole my blogging topic! I suppose that with break and all, this is something on everyone's mind. I'll post my angle soon-ish (but no deadlines!)