Embracing constraints should be real world sensibility, not cult dogma

Embracing constraints in design and programming shouldn’t have to feel like you’re going against anyone’s grain. Yet, there’s still a sense in the real world that enjoying these limitations is some Web 2.0 cult-ish right of passage instead of just – making sense.

Without constraints, you can’t have creativity or innovation or “cool” period. Creativity is relative to the environment you’re working in. Using a whiteboard marker to open a bottle of Schlitz is creative, unless you happen to have a bottle opener in your other pocket.

Using tables and shim gifs to slice up a web page layout was really fucking cool back in the day, because we could now take just about any blasphemous design and make it work in HTML. (Side note: I traditionally do not swear in my public writing – but seriously, it was really fucking cool back then.) Had no one ever thought of how to work around those limitations, web design would never have reinvented itself into the “standards”-compliant languages that still allow for great design today. Oh, and standards-compliance today = more constraints.

In reality, every great achievement is an achievement because there was a constraint or two in place. Usain Bolt’s 9.58 run is heralded as a great achievement because it’s the fastest any human-without-proof-of-illegal-drug-use has ever run 100m-with-a-tail-wind-of-less-than-2-meters-per-second.

Ben Johnson broke the world record in the same event in 1988 (then 9.79 seconds), but no one would consider that a great feat because he tested positive for steroids.

If we didn’t embrace constraints in sports, there’d be no fuss over Barry Bonds or Rosie Ruiz. They’d be the greatest home run hitter and 1980 woman’s Boston Marathon champion, respectively – no questions asked.

Here’s a game. Connect all 9 dots without lifting your pen.

Sure ain’t much of a brain teaser. But now, try connecting all 9 dots without lifting your pen, using just 4 lines. You’re intrigued aren’t you?

But that’s just it. In other realms, constraints are called something else. Rules, laws, or even…games. The notion that embracing constraints in the web world as some holier-than-thou attitude toward how we build applications is nonsense. We often get too brainwashed by the infinite possibilities of what we can do that we forget constraints are the things that define what among these possibilities is actually innovative (or cool or creative or smart or clever or even fun).

For the curious and stumped, the answer to the puzzle is here.