This is an idea I’ve toyed with for awhile, but never fully fleshed out. I thought that perhaps putting it out there might generate some interesting feedback to help refine it.


  • Creative output with almost no constraints generally falls under the category of Art.
  • Creative output with real-world constraints is more often considered Design.
  • And constrained output with only some creativity will often fit under Engineering.

If you think of most modern art, it seems to be about ‘pushing the boundaries’ of what art is. Another way to put that would be that it’s about showing how unconstrained art is. Think sharks in formaldehyde, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain‘, or More New Math’s formula.

Most of my favorite artists have set themselves artificial constraints, to prevent themselves getting lost in a sea of options.

I disliked when star designers were people like Philippe Starck* or the young Marc Newson. To me, these guys were more ‘unconstrained artists’ than they were problem solving designers. But these days, Marc Newson has maturedJonathon Ive is the new super-mega-super-star, and the term ‘design’ is even being attached to ‘thinking‘. Our modern design hero now balances a huge mass of constraints, and still manage to produce a cohesive and compelling output.

A lot of engineering is about applying a series of established standards without stuffing anything up. The better engineers cover all the standards and still manage to produce an elegant outcome. But there is generally less overall potential for expressing yourself than in art or design.

There’s no great climax at the end of this post, nor is this meant to be an attempt to define art (or design or engineering). Instead, it’s a rambling look at the role that constraints play in each of these disciplines.

Perhaps the one take out would be that if you’re an engineer that hates constraints, please don’t build any bridges that I will drive over.

*If you have never owned a Starck design, congratulations. They are fairly notorious for burning your hand, destroying your bench-top, or generally self destructing once the label is removed.

Images via Design Boom. Click here for full article.