There’s no such thing as design without constraints!

Attributed to Tom Kelley

I often here my service design colleagues lament over the constraints we constantly overcome when designing within government. Recently Sam Hannah-Rankin wrote an article “I work in public sector innovation. Isn’t that an oxymoron, he replied”, which highlights the perception that in government there is so much constraint and bureaucracy, nothing innovative ever gets developed. I think this is an overly harsh view of innovation in government and I don’t believe service design operates anywhere without coming up against design constraints.

I love watching programs about architecture and building design. One of my favourite programs is Kevin Macleod’s, Grand Designs. I’ve watched this program for years and watching the latest series it struck me, some of these people are trying to design and build their houses in the most constrained and difficult of circumstances. Money seems the obvious constraint but in the most recent episode I watched, money wasn’t an issue but after 4 years of building, they had only just closed in the house and it still wasn’t livable. 15 years on and the couple who built the house are now selling it and identify a few things that have never been finished. Sounds like they eventually got to a minimum viable product, then spent years iterating and improving their house.

I would argue that, no matter what type of organisation you are in, you will always have to deal with service design constraints.

Here’s some design constraints:

1. Money

Let’s deal with the most obvious constraint first. Unless you’re a big player like Amazon and google, you well never design without having fiscal constraints. Even with what feels like unlimited budgets, these organisations can still get it wrong. Remember google glass?

In government the fiscal constraints may feel insurmountable but we are, after all, the stewards of tax payer money. What I do feel, is that service design opens the way for involving the public in the design process, which hopefully minimizes the view that government is not efficient or effective in how it spends the money.

2. Typography

Or more to the point, the environment you are building in. I have watched so many building design shows and have been in awe at where some people will chose to build. In some cases they are building in high density areas, squeezing houses into the oddest, land, shapes and sizes. So they have to make the building design, fit the environment.

No matter where you are using service design, you will have to pay attention to the environment you are designing in. Don’t go in blindly with a process and think the environment will adapt to what you design. Often it is the other way around.

3. Rules and Regulations

Leave it to our British friends to build and/or redesign the most amazing structures. Despite at times being overwhelmingly constrained by council or historical building regulations, and the time it takes to navigate the regulations, they manage to design and build the most beautiful structures. Restoring old buildings seems to be a British national past time and I’m so glad they do it.

So we need to realize that no one has “carte blanche” on any service design project. Yes I know it feels like government is much more constrained than other organisations, but how could it not be! I think the question is,when designing in government ask, what is negotiable and non-negotiable, then I think as a service designer you will have a much easier time of it.

4. Structure

Grand Designs: The Inverted Roof House

I’ve separated structure out from typography as it relates to the structure you are designing in, but also the structure you want to build. In the case of the inverted roof house, the inverted roof had never been done before and caused the owner no end of issues.

It goes without saying, but don’t design something that you think is fabulous but isn’t going to fit, or in the case of the inverted roof house where the owner wanted perfection, be unwilling to compromise in order to get to a usable or finished product.

Helpful hints for dealing with design constraints

1. Be upfront about what your design constraints are

I often start a service design project with talking about what the design principles will be. This is also a good time to talk about design constraints. It’s also good to revisit the design constraints through the process. Constraints can provide some structure and you avoid wasting time on ideas that won’t work.

2. Adapt when you need to

In the case of the inverted roof house, the owner never got exactly what he wanted and had to compromise to at least get the house closed in, and eventually, livable. There are times when you are just going to have to adapt. There maybe unforeseen situations come up and something may not work, no matter how much you want it to. It’s hard to let go of what you feel is a great idea, but if you don’t, do you really want to spend the next 15 years trying to realize that great idea!

3. Lessons learned

I hope that every architect around visited the inverted roof house, studied it closely, talked to the owner and builder, taking the lessons they had learned and have not made the same mistakes. We need to be open about our successes and our failures. We should be thankful for pioneers and remember that, “the first person through the door often gets burnt” and suffers all the things that can go wrong in order to realize their vision.

While the owner of the inverted roof house may still feel like there are aspects of the house that aren’t quite right or quite finished, I think people can agree, he has created something beautiful and sublime. It’s just a shame he had to wait many years to enjoy it and I have to wonder if in the end, it was all worth it.

Grand Designs: Inside the Inverted Roof House