Thriving by Constraint

“We all have Constraints. In design, constraints are where the ideas come from”.
 Ayse Birsel Co-founder, Birsel + Seck.

My son Gavriel was about 7 years old when he soggy’d his gourmet PB&J sandwich with his tears. My mate Seth was a touring musician halfway thru his Eurotrip when he stopped by our place in London for the weekend. Seth loves kids and loves feeding them too. On this occasion, I made the milkshakes while Seth hit the grub station – knocking out some amazing three-tiered, toasted, gastro wonder-snacks.

Everything was ready, the kids were stoked and all was perfect… Then the rain came down. Gavriel lost the plot completely. And his appetite. “What’s wrong Gavi?” Seth asked. “Where did the crust go,” Gavi whimpered, “they’re isn’t any crusts on my sandwich!” 

That may have been a perfect moment – a phrase never uttered by any human since the dawn of the sandwich. It’s like a kid saying, “But I don’t want ice cream for dinner!”

I was stunned if not completely embarrassed. Seth could see that I was struggling with what to do next and jumped in, “I’m so sorry Gavi. Is that a problem?” “Yes,” Gavi replied, “cuz now I don’t know where to stop eating the sandwich!”

— — —

I remember a time when I thought that most constraints were a drag – often put in place by nervous clients who feared things may go off-track without them. Of course, I’m not referring to obvious constraints as presented by universal laws or Mother Nature, but rather those appended to a project by the changetard. You know ’em. They’re everywhere, on every floor, in every size organization; desperately latching onto their small patch of whatever and protecting it at any cost.

For so long, I let these oxygen thieves get under my skin with their, “It needs to be submitted in MS Word.”, or “we can’t use blue as the CEO’s pet iguana, Henry, reacts poorly to blue.”

Well, here’s what I believe now… IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER. PERIOD.

Most of the time, these project gatekeepers had little or nothing to do with creating the constraints in the first place. And if they did, then it means they cared enough to give it some thought – no matter how immaterial it may have seemed to me at the time.

This belief, that constraints and their supporters were kinda like creative cockblockers, cost me a lot of work, time and future opportunities to shine. Any belief impacting our life in such a negative way needs to be re-examined. And that’s what I did. I simply made a choice to see every constraint as a free pass to explore the what-ifs and the why-nots.

Constraints save time. They provide valuable intel on where the boundaries are; giving us design thinkers a chance to dance on the edge of what’s possible – to eat up every opportunity that comes our way, while being thankful the “crusts” are there to keep us on track.


  • Interesting approach: what’s a way that you advise clients to use the “crusts” when approaching their design projects ir making creative briefs?

    • Hi Freestyler. Most important is to be certain of your certainties. Sounds obvious but I find most clients are not rigorous enough early on. Also, be crystal clear between abstracts/absolutes. For example, does,”We cannot paint this wall blue.” mean any hue/shade blue or is that navy, baby, sky, etc. If you’re not sure, find out. The goal here is to eradicate any abstract or non-specific constraints from the spec. If you’re not certain, then I suggest working with your design team early in the process to help you identify and articulate the constraints. The earlier you can involve them in the process, then (usually) the better the experience, process and outcome will be.

    • Thanks Bill. It was hard work for me to get to that point but I’m glad I did. It’s a top 5, all-time transformative step forward for me and my business.

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