Management Tips

Creativity in Design: Can creating conflict within constraints yield results?

Creative challenges have no borders

I was reading an article on one of my regular haunts, Spin Sucks, which discussed the challenges with creativity in the PR world and offered ways to increase the level of creativity specific to the their industry. There were 3 factors identified which could increase the opportunity for more creative output; curiosity, constraints and conflict.

As an Interior Designer I don’t know a whole lot about the PR world but I do know that inner beast called creativity and its ability to challenge our industry professionals.

Curiosity aside (c’mon, really?) dealing with conflict and constraints sounds familiar doesn’t it? We deal with conflict in our lives every day and constraints are natural to the business of Architecture and Interior Design.

I left a comment on the site and suggested a designer’s approach to creativity regularly creates conflict within constraints and in reality that’s where the fun really begins.

I was asked to put my money where my mouth is.

Projects are constraints.

Every project has constraints; area, cost, time, skills, etc.

As long as I can remember constrains drive the eventual solutions to any design problem. Constraints are always present regardless of how flexible they may seem so when I suggested designers find conflict within the constrains and the conflict is where the fun happens what I really mean to say is we test the constraints to ensure the results are not simply fit neatly into a box.

As designers, we try not to take anything at face value.

My lovely wife and I were discussing the word conflict and being forever positive she suggested that conflict is not a great word to describe what she sees as creative tension. We agreed creative tension is a better way to define conflict in the design process.

The words that get associated with conflict are collision, disagreement, contradictory, opposition, interference and incompatibility. All good words when you think about challenging the status quo or in this case instigating creative tension. I am not a big fan of groupthink, going with the flow or path of least resistance stuff.

Improved solutions to problems are normally the result of challenging ideas.

It’s worth the effort.

Let’s see if creative tension gets results.

On a recent project a client started the process by suggesting to us that applying a technology based solution was the best way they could keep up with the changing landscape of their business. They wanted the design to leverage their existing database of content through established social tools. The design needed to respond to the experiences their business partners, customers and staff would have as they engaged with the company. Their major constraints were lease expiry, the class of their existing building and the impact of technology (mobile and social) on their workforce, customers and clients.

With that in mind we set out to define what conflict (creative tension) exists based on the list of following constraints common in our work.

  • time to implement
  • cost to implement
  • program of requirements (what is that the client wants/needs, what are their specific goals?)
  • economic conditions (regional, national or global – it affects our thinking not only the client’s)
  • space limitations (a box is a box)
  • cultural norms (drives attitude, preferences, interests all which affect solutions)
  • client knowledge or understanding of process (does the client understand how you get from A to B and how do they “plug in”. Approvals aside, they have to be allowed to “play”)
  • available resources (what tools do you have and how can you use them? what tools are missing?)
  • competitive advantage for or against (are you an incumbent or are you new, how much of this work have you done? do you understand their industry?)
  • skill sets (who you have, who you can get, what they can do)
  • precedent work (what your past experiences are and how they affect your solutions – sometimes precedent work inhibits new ideas)

When applying the list of constraints to the project the following conflict (creative tension) was discovered as opportunity to influence the resulting design.

Opposing viewpoints to design intent.

Challenging the client to see which program elements truly impact the direction for a project. Ask difficult questions. Why did they choose the program? How did they come up with the program? Once we have the design intent in place we prioritized the program requirements to demonstrate their impact to the design solution. We also played with removing program requirements to examine the client’s reaction.

What can result is the critical elements are solidified in their true order of priority.

Challenging defined processes

We have done design the same way forever. Before we start we try to push designers to examine the opportunities for developing ideas. What ways can we use the tools (skills, software, etc) to find the answers? Using video, for example, to show how the design evolved or ignoring the linear design process to exploring different ways to develop ideas.

Not accepting the status quo and/or challenging trends

Just because technology is the trend of the future does not mean it is meant to drive the design from both a process or implementation perspective. What are the impacts to driving technology as a solution? How will people be impacted by the change?

Limiting thinking simply to the immediate program does not necessarily yield the best results. Looking at alternate approaches and how the organization is affected by pushing the solutions beyond the program can open the doors to innovation. Thinking about the future impact to an organization as a whole and what impact the current program may have on the overall operations as it is implemented can drive the project in directions that may have not been considered. Testing new directions back against the fixed constraints can yield interesting results.

Challenging fixed behavior

Look for new ways to solve a problem.

What behaviors do other industry professionals bring to the design problem? Every project has a team and exposing other industry professionals to the project scope to challenge the known behaviours for programming space can yield interesting opportunities. We do this with design charettes and deliberately allow open and completely free thinking. The advantage we have is we have disciplines across a variety of sectors of our business (i.e. mechanical, electrical, structural, sustainability, urban planning) but you can do this with traditional companies too by asking sales, accounting, HR, facilities, etc staff to bring their expertise to the table to discuss the impact of proposed program against their experiences.

Challenging complexity vs simplicity

The design process is a complex beast. How can we find a way to eliminate process, challenge progress by stripping nonessential process from a design exercise? Or on the contrary what do we add to enhance the opportunity for innovative output? We are constantly looking for ways to simplify process to gain efficiency and at times efficiency can limit the ability to be highly creative but efficiency constraints (time, budget) can sometimes yield amazing results.

Asking designers to work within very tight constraints enhances creative thinking. Consideration to a client’s budget can drive innovative thinking. Even if a client has the time and money, why spend it if you don’t have to?

The jury is deliberating.

In this case, the client requested a variety of optional solutions. We decided to give them one which layered several ideas into a single approach. Each one is essentially peeled away through layers to offer slow integration. The benefits of this approach allowed us to spread the financial impact over time (another constraint) and as a result graduated impact to their existing space. This approach allows time for the design to be tested, for the final solution to evolve over time and time to build on the client relationship.

The resulting solution is the client is using a retail approach to engage customers, staff and clients in a corporate business environment.

Over to you:

So, what do you think? Can you apply these approaches to your industry or projects? It’s really just about challenging thinking!





About this Author: Ralph Dopping (199 Posts)

A quirky sense-o-humour coupled with an indelible sense of stylish sarcasm makes it difficult to take the world too seriously doesn't it? My faves: fun, passion and hard work. I work here everyday:

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

It's all about team playing, right? I mean finding a balance to get there together is what we all strive for; that way, everyone gets the credit and everyone gets the blame. Well, that's how it's supposed to work, theoretically!


I really love the don't accept the status quo one. I say this to my team all the time: Even if your clients are older than you or more experienced, you know more about communications than they do. Don't accept their status quo as ours. And I agree with Bill, conflict does equal opportunity. It may be uncomfortable, but it works.


Well, in my world I jokingly say conflict = opportunity. It might not be pleasant, but it will help you think outside the box for a palatable solution. Sometimes it means you just have to 'man' up and take your medicine. Typically in my world conflict has a 'price tag' associated with it and that has bearing on whether it can be resolved satisfactorily or not. 


It appears in your world the constraints might try to keep you in a box, but that's not the way you guys think. So I suppose conflict is where some of the best creativity is found, right? Maybe an 'aha' moment or two? 

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

When I read "conflict within the constraints" I thought that was a brilliant way to look at it. Ignoring the conflict/tension semantic portion, I think you are right that it is about testing assumptions and pressing against the constraints to see what can be bent or broken, not for the sake of destruction but for the sake of creation.


I was looking for a universal theme here, and I think it is "why." Don't just ask what the constraint is, ask why it exists. Because in the why exists the opportunity to find the strength or weakness of the constraint. 


Really good stuff Ralph! And I think you just inspired next week's Monday Motivation.


I like what your wife said about creative conflict v. creative tension. But I don't think they're interchangeable terms. You get conflict (sometimes) when people have different agendas or goals. Tension is good. Conflict can be debilitating. 


(I'm not saying my definition is right and anyone else is wrong. It's just a way for me to differentiate between two different cases.) 

rdopping moderator

@Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing In theory. Yes. Moat of these ideas are borne from years of trying to get designer to thinly about their process flow a little differently. Not everyone wants to challenge the status quo every time even though it usually ends up better than if you simply follow a prescribed pattern. We softened it a bit by calling it creative tension instead. Thanks for dropping by. Cheers.

rdopping moderator

 @bdorman264 Yes, you said it! An a-ha moment or two is what we are after. Hey, at times, a simple solution is best and it's not worth fighting a battle over but in most cases i have found when you push you get results. These days innovation (creative thinking) is the only thing that sets you apart especially in the bloody ocean that is design.


Keeping your eye on the prize is what makes one better than the other. It is a true differentiator in this industry. We won this account because we paid attention and delivered something that aligned with the client's exact expectations.


Cheers! Thanks for dropping by. 

rdopping moderator

 @Adam | Customer Experience Hey thanks Adam! Glad to inspire someone. That makes it all worthwhile.


You know, you have a great way of looking at this. Asking why or pushing against the status quo is a good thing and that's really what I was getting to. So glad you see this piece in a similar light. Cheers!

rdopping moderator

 @barrettrossie Hey Barrett, I have to clarify. She was not talking about creative conflict. She was simply looking for another bent on conflict to avoid the negative. Hence, creative tension.


This seems to be a touchy subject.


I agree conflict can be debilitating. The notion of creating tension by challenging ideas beats groupthink in all cases. When I said "conflict within constraints" I was responding to a specific subject written elsewhere. Creating conflict is not the way to get results, I agree. That's why we are going with creative tension and demonstrating how design solutions can evolve beyond the status quo. Did I make any sense?


 @rdopping Oh sure, it makes sense. I'm just a fan of finding the precise word whenever possible. In your case, I think you really do mean tension. (As do others who have used that word in that way.)


I have memories, seared in my brain, in which managers at ad agencies preached one thing but really only wanted the course of least resistance. They didn't want "creativity" or excellence, they just wanted the client to buy off. It really made the "creative" people in the trenches feel like cheap whores.


Fortunately for me, most of my employers were not pimps. They really did have integrity. Even though the process was never easy, it was fulfilling. 


One thing I'll never forget from a great, great art director/supervisor: "If it were easy, anyone could do it."  :)