If you’re a creative person you might believe you are at your most creative without any constraints. In reality however, this isn’t true. Your creativity needs a focus. If creativity guides you without any boundaries, it’s easy to go overboard. Constraints limit the actions that can be performed by the user and increases the usability of the design and reduces the probability of operational error. Restrict yourself to just a few design elements and a set deadlines to positively direct your design efforts.
The Hazards of Creative Freedom
The greatest gift a client can give is creative freedom. On the other hand, the worst thing a designer can do is allowing themselves total creative freedom. It should be in the client’s interests to leave the designer to do their thing because a good designer can identify the key elements required to make the project a success. The client can tell us the problem they need a website to promote a new product and it’s up to the designer to create a solution. The good designer gets to the design stage with a big list of constraints from the discovery phase: they know the demographic, branding guidelines and, through various conversations with his contacts there. For the responsible designer, the truly open brief doesn’t exist. And even when they have got a set of constraints from the client, they might well impose still further constraints upon themselves.
The first constraint to put upon yourself is time. Speed helps in the early stages of a design because you get down key concepts without focusing on details. Working fast also helps switch your brain functions. It encourages use of the right side of your brain and it’s the right side of the brain that does the creative heavy lifting. If you have a serious time limitation, you aren’t able to rationally analyse your work. You simply don’t have time. Instead, if you force yourself to rely on the subconscious and intuition, you will be using the, creative, right side of your brain. You can produce acceptable designs working from the left side of your brain, but they will have been processed rationally, based on existing solutions. Force yourself to use the right side of your brain and you can get away from these rationalised processes and make decisions based on instinct and gut reaction - and it’s here the original and innovative processes can take place.
Separating Creativity and Art
It’s worth noting that there is a separation between creativity and design. Exactly what we’re calling these is semantics, but the above process is one to encourage free, unrestricted, thought with the goal of promoting innovation. This is the creative process. The design process requires you to take the creative work and pull it into a more cohesive shape. For a website designer this requires assessing how the creative designs can also be usable, functional, designs. We’re building websites not making art.
Your design should guide the user through the process. It shouldn’t overly embellish. Sometimes the embellishments are appropriate, but you need to understand why they’re needed. Understand what elements (font, colour, image type, text size, line weight) are required for the design and embrace them. These are the constraints that will allow your creativity to really shine and offer site visitors the best usability experience. Try utilizing symbols to creatively increase site usability. Symbols are useful for categorizing, clarifying and cautioning users about certain actions. A good example of symbols being used for constraint in design would be the error sound that a site makes when an entry is incomplete or invalid. This serves as a warning to the user that additional actions are necessary.
Setting limits is not solely about not using design elements. It is much more about focusing on the few genuinely important elements that are required to convey the message of your website, and adding in other design elements only when they support the key elements. Choice doesn’t give us freedom.
Constraining user behavior instead of enabling it may initially seem counter-intuitive, by limiting user actions they can actually focus on perfecting those limited options. Understanding and implementing constraints will help users engage your design with minimal error. Too much choice is often confusing, disabling and dissatisfying.