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The Boundless Joys of Limitations

For those of you who are feeling hemmed in by constraints, this one’s for you. This one’s about why you should remember to love those brand guidelines, those corporate standards, and even those persnickety stakeholders of yours — because in the end, it is the limitations that lead us to do our best work. Indeed, (and I do love starting a sentence with “Indeed”) limitations have led to some of the greatest design innovations in history.

It is natural for designers to feel hindered by their company’s brand guidelines, which limit their choice of typefaces, their choice of colors, their choice of imagery and, heck! — even their choice of page layouts. After all, could we not be doing much better work — and having much more fun — if only we had a blank canvas to work with?

Of course, this kind of thinking is pure crap (hey, this is my email newsletter and I can say “crap” if I want to). And it is frequently a sign of burn-out or a lack of imagination. Can you imagine Apple without a set of brand guidelines? (That was a trick question; if you can imagine Apple without a set of brand guidelines, then you obviously have a perfectly healthy imagination!)

But Seriously. Rules Make the Fun.

I like to think of brand guidelines as a set of rules, and we all know that rules are what makes the game fun, right? Don’t believe me? Think of the game Musical Chairs without rules. It would just be a bunch of toddlers punching each other in the face over the last chair. Ok, that was an over-simplistic example, but what about soccer? Without rules, players could simply carry the ball to the goal! The game would require no skill at all and would be reduced to complete chaos. No! It’d be far worse! It would be rugby!

What About Stakeholders? They Don’t Make Anything Fun.

True. But if we were to imagine the most demanding stakeholders of all time, certainly the European Renaissance, a time of unequaled creativity, would come to mind, and also the Pharaoh Khufu, whose pyramid at Giza, still standing after 4,500 years, remains the most massive building on earth. Sure, sure, Khufu was undoubtedly an HR Director’s nightmare, and the well-monied Florentine families of the Renaissance probably couldn’t return an email if their lives depended on it, but talk about award-winning designs!

The point is that it’s not the limitations that are getting in the way of you being brilliant. It all comes down to mindset. The most successful designers are those who are constantly framing their role as one of problem-solving; of tackling a design challenge and using sideways thinking to develop a novel approach to finding a solution.

So, when you’re feeling stuck for inspiration, or burnt out at your job, just remember that limitations have led to some of the greatest design innovations in history. Now go make some history!

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