Constraints & Affordances
I spend a disturbing amount of time thinking about the way our world has come to be. This morning, like most mornings, I took the tram to work. There was a window in the driver’s booth with a metal mesh over it - likely to prevent foreign bodies finding their way into the compartment from the terrible streets of Manchester. I started to wonder about the decisions made about that mesh. Who decided on the size of the holes? Why did they come to that decision?
As these things naturally go, I found myself considering industrial design and the choices involved in the production of things like chairs, vehicles, and everything in between. The constraints that forced the designer’s hand in the decisions that let to the final product. Using particular paints or materials because they’re cheaper. The flat-pack furniture revolution, when companies (or at least one particularly popular company) realised they could cut costs for themselves and consumers by cutting out the assembly part of furniture manufacture. Artists who create from very little.
And then I began to think about the constraints of the web. Or rather, the lack thereof.
In the digital space, our resources are limitless. Our canvas is infinitely large, and comes at no extra cost. We can be dangerously wasteful. The Internet is our art supply shop. And our workshop. And our factory. Our toilet, our bedroom, our office, and our In-n-Out. We lead such easy lives. What constraints exist in this world? Certainly not one of resources. That leaves time and money. But the web is cheap, and it’s always on. Even those constraints are weak and blurry.
And so we step back towards the traditional methods. We give ourselves limits and borders. We only use one typeface. We make sure the site stays under size X. We design mobile-first. We challenge. We make. Is it enough?
I doubt it. There’s a deep longing in me. A need to make something real. Something to hold and smell. A book. A print. A walking stick, for all I care. It can be tiring creating something that can so easily vanish with a simple tap of a keyboard. So I plan, and I practice for the day it’s possible for me to make. To craft. To feel the constraints of the situation, and to mould them into a product.
I studied photography at college, which I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because of how hands-on it would get. We’d spend hours in the darkroom, come out stinking of chemicals and going through so many materials just to get some kind of picture developed. Most of the time, the photograph comes out nothing like you’d imagined. It’s overexposed. Or there’s so much dust on the thing you couldn’t tell it was taken in this century. But no matter how bad the results, the time and care and process behind it gives it a worth so profound that you share it with pride regardless of its artistic value. The imperfections are a mark of our craft. We don’t have that on the web.
There are no happy accidents. No overexposures. Mistakes are logged in version control, or comments, but quickly shooed away. We’re not brave enough. We strive too hard for perfection.
Constraints encourage bravery and amplify value. Remain mindful of the decisions you make - and most importantly, the mistakes you make.