The Liberation of Limitations

Posted by: Calvin Chopp


“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” — T.S Eliot

One of the things I enjoy most about being a designer is having clients who trust my ability to create something that represents them to their customers. It’s a big responsibility, and one that agencies shouldn’t take lightly. Part of this design process of getting a project off the ground is the initial phase of creating design options and different comps for the client’s consideration. In other words, choices.

Here’s the thing … growing up we’re basically taught that freedom is maximizing choices. The freedom of choice, right? You want running shoes? Here’s 50 different shoe companies offering 15 models in 5 different colors, each. The freedom to choose!

As a client, what could be greater than handing a project over to a competent designer, and giving them the freedom to “do your thing and make something great out of this”, letting them go to town creating the next big thing for you? The designer would have unlimited choices with branding profiles, the freedom to use their discretion regarding typography, mood boards and content transitions  — everything up to their professional expertise, which you’re paying for. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, the very freedom that clients often give can become the very bondage that slows the creative process, and ultimately blows up budgets and timelines. Or, on the flip side, leaves the client with a final product that didn’t quite live up to expectations, assuming any expectations were set.

Bob Garfield talks about the ‘tyranny of freedom’ and the ad industry’s obsession with breaking rules in his book And Now a Few Words from Me. He uses the example of a child, and how “lack of boundaries does not liberate, it enslaves…”. His point is what looks on the surface to be confining can sometimes be liberating, and the lack of boundaries can promote indecision for the designer.

It’s the client’s responsibility to set these boundaries. It’s the designer’s responsibility to help walk the client through that process and answer questions that, at times, the client may not know to ask.

To think outside the box, there has to first be a box.

Deep right? Bear with me — I’ll try to not get too zen, but it’s valid. It’s important to understand that creativity thrives on constraints. If you have a wide open plain of choices, that creates a load of pressure, especially given that almost every project comes with a budget and a set timeline, both of which already affect the project scope. When designers are given context  — restrictions and limitations — it stimulates creativity.

Here’s an example. I want you to sit at your desk, grab a blank sheet of paper, and I want you to draw something cool. Anything. Oh, and you only have 5 minutes. Feel free to email me your creations at calvin@elexicon.com. (No seriously, your submissions would make my day). Chances are if you took my example seriously, you’d sit there for half that time deliberating on what exactly to draw. The other half of the time would be spent quickly throwing together whatever it was that you settled on, and at the 5 minute mark, you’d likely not be incredibly happy with the results, or you’d second-guess your decision.

OK, now I want you to take the same 5 minute slot, and this time I’m going to give you a scene — a set of limitations. This time, its the zombie apocalypse and I want you to draw your war vehicle with all it’s weaponry that you’re going to drive to survive the hungry hordes. If you’re anything like me, your mind is immediately racing with all the guns and gadgets and armor that you’re going to attach to the outside of your car!

The example is silly, but this same concept rings true with project scopes and outlines that we designers receive from clients — the better we understand the project challenges and scope from the client, the higher the likelihood that we’re going to not only come in on budget and within the timeframe, but also that you’ll get more creative, better quality work.

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