Design Within Constraints

DESIGN within constraints

This principle–designing within constraints–has two prongs. One for the designer and one for the learner. Let’s start with design.

At The Ohio State University, where I studied choreography, Vera (Vicki) Blaine, the chair of the department, taught the first class in dance composition for all incoming graduate students. It was a tough class. Vicki set such specific perameters around our movement quality and composition that, at first, it seemed unreasonable. I had to work for hours to master the kind of movement quality she was looking for. But it set the creative stage for an incredibly fulfilling education in choreography.

What does this have to do with learning? Everything actually. Vicki Blaine was teaching students how to set constraints for themselves in such a way that forced a creative response. Recently, I attended a workshop with Kevin Thorn (NuggetHead Stuidoz), an amazing artist and designer who landed in the Learning Development field (lucky for us). He gave similar advice concerning constraints. “Design something with only 3 colors. Design a course without audio.” In other words, design within constraints.

But how do you come up with constraints without them seeming contrived? You may not have to look very far to find your constraints. Client only wants you to use PowerPoint for eLearning? Stakeholders want to throw the kitchen sink in along with the rest of their content? Legal won’t budge on modifying language? Management wants to cut down on the time you have to present training? We’ll talk about that in another blog. Suffice it to say that some constraints are out of your control. But even these barriers should be viewed as constraints not hinderances to design, because constraints force a creative response. Beyond the outside constraints or setting your own restrictions on the project, how do you define the constraints from project to project? Ask yourself these questions to narrow down your constraints:

  • What design skills do I want to deepen? Story-telling, authoring tool skills, dialogue, audio editing?
  • Where am I challenged the most in the design process? Developing the script, getting to know the learners, choosing color schemes and fonts, creating visuals,?
  • How can I tailor this experience to fit the specific needs of the learners? Language level, case studies, training environment? 

Need to deepen your story-telling skills? The constraint may be to include an element of story-telling in every subtopic of learning. Challenged most by script development? The constraint may be to present a portion of the script using audio only, such as a podcast, instead of relying on your strengths in visual design to help propel the script development forward. Need to cut out legalese and make the course more readable? The constraint may be to reach a determined Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Constraints force a creative response…for both the design process and for learning. I’ll talk more about constraints for learners in a future blog.

In the mean time, I’d like to hear how you place constraints on your design.


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