Design by Rationalised Constraint


In a world where the majority of the human population now live in cities design matters more than at anytime in history. The recently released Mapping Australia’s economy: cities as engines of prosperity (ref) substantiates the significance of that trend claiming 80% of all goods and services are generated on just 0.2% of the Australian land mass. So design as non-trivial choice determines how we live and the prosperity of our future lives in the deeply interconnected systems and technologies that make up the world in which we live. Design matters, and it matters deeply.

Every intention we hold is defined by constraint. The universe is a large, but limited place. It isn’t constrained, because without intention there is simply nothing to be constrained from. We are defined by constraint, and yet the human imagination is not constrained to what can and cannot be. Humans chafe against the constraints that define them, while without constraints we could not exist. The power of an imagination that stretches beyond the boundaries of what can and cannot be, frees us to fail. It also opens the prospect of a future world ever richer in human experience.

Our intentions whether non-trivial or important to us alone, exist in the face of an unknowable future. Being fully human seems to require us to value the nature of our future despite its radical uncertainty. We have designs upon the future that we value, and achievement of that intended state of being requires resolution to problems that stand before us. The largest public companies and individual consumers are equally subject to the constraints that define the space between today and their intentions. Every problem belongs to someone and has a value or it simply isn’t a problem. An effective design brief describes the nature of every material constraint acting upon the specific problem.

For a designer, an opportunity may exist to resolve that problem. Each and every designer is however uniquely constrained, as in all other areas of human endeavor they are the product of history, circumstance, and genetics. Every opportunity to provide a solution is unique and only available to that specific agent of design. A design solution will be perceived as more closely aligned to the problem than a solution available to any other designer. Our urban life has a problem that the light commercial vehicle seems to resolve. However there are no generic light commercial vehicles, instead there are competitive offers from Mercedes, Ford, Renault, Toyota and Hyundai. And even where there are shared components, it remains true to say that Ford simply cannot design a Mercedes solution.

In an abstract sense, a designer cannot achieve optimality by perfectly matching a solution to a problem. Design optimality is practically the matching of a design solution to the opportunity available to the designer. Two forms of design failure become visible, the choice of the wrong designer and a design solution that is not the best fit the designer can achieve. In both instances there is an opportunity cost of the solution forgone that would more effectively have resolved the problem.

Optimality in a future state is essentially achieved through the combination of two complimentary design processes. A design can only exist as a product of both. The balance between them is defined by the nature of the problem. All problems exist in the future and are therefore subject to uncertainty. We cannot know the future; so all information is fundamentally surprise. That surprise can be understood to exist as either as unknown answers to knowable questions, or unknown answers to as yet unknown questions.

Almost all of successful design is sweat. Design analysis that rationalises the constraints defining a problem reveals almost all of an optimal solution. There are knowable characteristics of nature, laws and lores determining human exchange, and perceptions that govern a design solution. The designer’s methodology and competence limits their ability to synthesis understanding through subjectivity, complexity and network effects.

Every design solution ultimately exists in the future and resolves future problems, and so it embodies a degree of speculative pattern making or creativity. The degree and nature of that creative act will depend on how much of the design solution exists beyond the boundaries that which is known in the present. Any one looking at a wheel knows what a great design it is; its appearance however was a great surprise. Albert Hirschmann recognized an empowering paradox in human endeavor; we underestimate the scale of any problem by about the same degree to which we underestimate our own capacity to resolve it.

Successful design simultaneously more productively resolves toward intention while effectively reducing risk than any other opportunity. In a world in which our future being and prosperity are increasingly determined by design choices, design matters. Design by Rationalised Constraint is not in conflict with creativity. In fact a successful creative act is only possible if the designer has first really understood the problem.

2 thoughts on “Design by Rationalised Constraint

  1. Hi Jacqui (and Andrew.) This is indeed interesting & thought provoking although I must confess I found it a little hard going. I think perhaps the takeaway messages are: Design matters because it determines our future; The intentions of the designer are constrained despite their imagination not being constrained; Imagination is used to design a solution to solve a problem in a future that is in itself, unknowable; Successful design resolves the problem at hand, within the abilities & imagination of the designer & the unknowable future by better achieving the constrained intentions & reducing risks than any other design. Do you think that’s a fair understanding? Chris

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