It’s often said that your average consumer is a lousy artist but a wonderfully articulate art critic. I think this is true for several reasons, none of which have anything to do with artistic ability. When left to our own intellectual devices, we tend to wander. Ask a group of eight behind the glass to “design our next product,” and I guarantee you they’ll give you the Jackalope. It has everything and uses each six sides to do it, with just enough room to fit the last of four USB ports between the cup holders.
In short, they lack constraints. And without constraints, it’s hard to innovate. You need something to work around, like feeling your way around a room in the dark. Give me a starting point from which I can plan my next move, and I can move confidently; give me nothing and I’m just in the dark.
Constraints are powerful motivators when we build products, programs and even brands. This is a little different from past discussions on “what am I not” – where we decide we’re willing to avoid or ignore certain commonly understood elements. This has to do with what we do FOR WHOM, specifically. Try this:
Shut your eyes and describe how you’d build a new and novel laptop briefcase. Give yourself all the time in the world. Getting anywhere?
Shut your eyes and describe how you’d build a new and novel laptop briefcase. Give yourself exactly thirty seconds to do it. The artificial constraint here is time, of course.
Shut your eyes and describe how you’d build a new and novel laptop briefcase, this time specifically designed for businesspeople with bad backs. Constraints are now multiplied, from actual material weight to the ergonomics of ‘hang,’ the ability to roll, the ease of shifting to different parts of the back, the ability to wear as a backpack, the distribution of weight within the bag itself to lie closer to the body, etc.
In each successive step, we’ve added layers of complexity in terms of the constraints, but actually made our lives easier by limiting our options. Once we acknowledge that we’re not really designing our products only for people with bad backs – but for anyone who would also enjoy the benefits of our design that happen to lessen the strain on anyone’s lower back – then we’ve achieved a certain degree of breakthrough.
Archimedes is attributed with the saying, ‘give me a lever big enough and I can move the world.’ Thank goodness the Syracusans never gave him a big enough constraint.