And this is where most design schools start
(and quite a few stop). A typical problem in a
graphic design class asks students to design a
poster. The teacher provides the context—perhaps
a poster promoting a concert for the Boston Pops.
The teacher also provides much of the message—
the copy to be included. The teacher may even
specify the size, particular colors, and typeface.
All that’s left is for the student to arrange the elements. Each student should produce half a dozen
or more variations.
A class of 25 students produces 150 variations,
which provide the basis for a critique—a discussion about the student’s proposed form and perhaps its relation to the given message. Through
prototyping and discussing, students come to
understand the space of possible solutions—the
degrees of freedom open to them—and the trad-eoffs between various factors.
Projects like designing the form of a concert
poster remain the reality of most graphic design
classes at the undergraduate level today—and quite
a few at the graduate level. Such formal projects
are also the reality of much of practice. Not just for
graphic design, but also product design, interaction
design, and architecture.
As young designers gain experience, they may
get opportunities to affect the way projects are
defined. At first, that may mean simply having visibility into new projects and being able to
express interest. Later, they may sit in on planning
meetings and then client meetings. Eventually,
they may take on responsibility for “running”
a client engagement. In function, if not name,
they become managers. Here they can affect at
least how a design team organizes a project.
However clients still constrain the level of
engagement. Figuring out what product to build
or which markets to serve are pragmatic business
issues—the third level of the matrix—typically
decided by the CEO or other “C-level” officers. Such
issues are almost always outside the hands of even
the product manager—and the designer.
It’s always good to remember at the beginning
of each project to explicitly confirm the level of
• Is the focus here making icons and skinning
• Or do you want us to look at the interaction
• Who’s writing the copy? Developing the content?
Space of Design Constraints
Brian Lawson has proposed a model of the space of design
constraints, defined by three dimensions:
1. The generators of constraints: designers themselves, clients,
users, and legislators. On this continuum, designer-generated
constraints are the most flexible; client- and user-generated constraints
less so; and legislator-generated constraints are the least flexible.
2. The domain of constraints, which may be internal to the thing
being designed or imposed from outside.
3. The type of constraint, which he bases on function:
• Symbolic: related to meaning
• Formal: color, texture, shape, etc.
• Practical: related to production
• Radical: fundamental, related to the main purpose
after Bryan Lawson
• Is the product positioning “locked and loaded”?
• Do you have user research to share? Would you
like us to talk to users?
• How will the product be distributed?
• Where is value added? How does the product
pay for itself?
Mimicking this growth path with design class
exercises is difficult. Critiquing formal issues is
easier—simply less time consuming—than critiqu-
September + October 2010