Repurposing Architecting Skills: Constraint by Design

"Constraint by Design" is the tenth in the series unpacking how architects might use their intrinsic architectural skills to not just to make architecture but to do better in their practice of architecture.

How might we set constraints to make practice better and easier for ourselves? Constraints that assist in decision making and all the work we do.

One of the most widely published type designers, Matthew Carter, is keen on saying that designing type involves a billion possibilities. He asserts that he halves the possibilities by deciding between serif and sans serif and halves them again by deciding the font weight, and so on. After a few more constraining decisions, defining style, letter shapes (oval or square), and so on, the design possibilities have reduced to the thousands or at least tens of thousands before pen has been put to page. [1]

The constraints of the type design are thusly established.

The advantages are clear. It limits the decisions to be made along the way and limits possibility. Yet we’re so often reluctant to set constraints for ourselves or our practice.

Setting constraints is a skill as much as it is tactic. We can get better at setting constructive constraints observing those that work and those that don’t and learning how to do it better.

As an architect many constraints in design projects are already predetermined. The boundary of the site and potentially the volume or floor area, the clients brief and budget, and so on. Seldom do architects commence a design project without some pre-ordained constraint. It’s common for architects work with a degree of reductionist decision making process as described by Matthew Carter. Yet many fail to take advantage of self-imposed constraints in more than their design projects. How might constraints be better utilised in practice, by design?

A classic example of architects refusing to set constraints is in the type of projects they do. By choosing to do a broad variety of projects, the ability to clearly define their expertise is diminished. Without clearly defined expertise their messaging is watered down. Subsequently spending time filtering out clients that aren’t a good match and potentially missing projects since their capability and expertise is not clear. There is so much more to this idea of the smallest viable market, it’s worthy of a full post.

Another example in the marketing realm, is setting constraints on which communication platforms to engage an audience and/or how it might be done. Constraints might also be set around client or consultant engagement, for example, only taking calls 9am-12pm in order to generate clear blocks of work time in the day. Other constraints might be set around time with regard to meetings, their length, where they’re held or whether they are even necessary. Constraints might be set around diversity, equity and inclusion, or other cultural priorities that are easy to let slide because they may be hard.

When constraints are set well, they make practice better, they don’t always make it easier in the short term. Constraints can be hard when they require change. It’s a skill that may require practice, hard work, a willingness to experiment, to fail and to iterate until a good practice design is settled upon. Constraints should ultimately make practice easier, they’re not there to introduce unnecessary challenges, only necessary ones.

What constraints might you set in order to assist you in making your practice better?


[1]: “Man of Letters: Matthew Carter’s life in type design”, The New Yorker, 5 December 2005, pp56-65.


Previous posts in the Repurposing Architecting Skills series

Designing PossibilityFail and IterateMemory and Research, Critical Thinking, Design as Improvisation, Assimilation of the Design Brief, Design as Decision Making, Sine qua non, Thinking Around Corners


Do you need support in better utilising your skills in architectural practice? Please feel free to drop me a line. I’m here to support you in building a better practice, forging better human and professional skills, and developing architectural leadership.


Picture by Skylar Kang on Pexels [cropped]

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