The freedom of constraints

April 18, 2014

Although the word often takes a bum rap, constraints are fun. They give you the parameters and the metrics to evaluate your progress. They’re the game rules for good play. Creative people understand the beauty of constraints — the four-bar blues, a haiku, a pas de deux. Working within forms is fun. Without constraints, we are a bunch of kids running around in our own whirlwinds.

When Design Concepts was selected as one of the 17 participants in the fourth biennial Design MMOCA event for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which opens April 25, 2014, the constraints were fairly loose:

  • We needed to use a piece of work from MMOCA’s permanent collection as our inspiration;
  • The exhibit theme, “Dream Up,” which encourages creative professionals from many disciplines to dream up designs of unlimited vision;
  • Our piece needed to be complete by April 24th.

Sounds easy, right?

What if I told you it is hard? Harder than a normal project by tenfold.

Chris Harris and I are co-Project Managers for Design Concepts’ team this year. That first step, choosing the inspiration artwork, seemed like the toughest hurdle initially. But the 30 overwhelmed and slightly panicked minutes we spent selecting our piece is nothing compared to the difficulty of managing the unlimited creativity of 12 talented individuals.

Working within forms is fun. Without constraints, we are a bunch of kids running around in our own whirlwinds.

Why is unlimited vision so tough?

1. Good is subjective. So is great.
Our team spent many, many hours ideating, sketching, discussing and building on one another. It was hard to know if our good ideas were good enough. Or if any of them were great. We had nothing to measure them against save for our own opinions, which changed every time a new person joined the ideation.

2. Does the buck HAVE to stop with me?
As project managers, Chris and I eventually figured out that our role was to stop the madness and make some executive decisions. It wasn’t comfortable. There was no way to know if we were making the right decisions, but we had to take options off the table and create our own constraints to focus the team and keep the momentum going.

3. Deadlines don’t kick in until the 11th hour.
A deadline three months out doesn’t create the urgency needed to drive a project forward. Without interim milestones, some we set and some MMOCA gave us, we would still be spinning our creative wheels.

Working on this project has been incredibly inspiring and refreshing, both personally and professionally. The freedom has given me a new appreciation for the constraints within which we typically work. Most are given to us by our clients or are uncovered in the research phase. To work within them focuses us, engages a different form of creativity when we have to “work around” them, and gives us the check-list that helps us know when, yes, we’ve got a set of solid solutions and now we can stop.

So let’s hear it for working within constraints. They help focus and drive creativity.

Design MMOCA, including our exhibit, will be on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., Madison, beginning on April 25, 2014. It will be open and free to the public for 10 days.