Research and constraints
We first judge truly good design not by its beauty or its innovativeness or its efficiency, but rather by how well it responds to its original problem. Successful solutions demand that the designer grasp the problem presented to her and the constraints within which she’s working. The designer has to ask and understand the answer to questions such as: who is the audience, what is the context, when will the solution be encountered, how will the solution be used—and even why is the solution necessary?
These questions can be difficult to answer, and the answers themselves are often unclear or difficult to parse. A designer must be persistent in asking them, in pressing for good and accurate answers, and in thoroughly examining and comprehending those answers.
Because a grid can give us such a head start in creating solutions, it can be tempting to forgo this stage of the process. Once a designer masters the rudiments of grids, it becomes much easier to start the mechanical process of constructing units and columns than to do the hard work of asking and answering these questions.
But nearly every design problem demands a period of thoughtful study before the search for a solution begins. Without a clear sense of the challenge at hand, any design work—including the development of the grid—is done in vain. It’s a much more productive use of time to do research at the beginning of a project than to jump straight to the design.
Grid-based designs are no different. The more completely the problem is investigated, the better the grid will be. Well-researched grids maximize the creative options available to the designer. They also anticipate and avoid the traps of prematurely constructed grids: inappropriately structured units and columns, grids that are good for some aspects of the problem but inadequate for others, grids that fail to account for constraints that may not be obvious at the outset, grids that prove so unworkable that they need to be rebuilt at inappropriate times, and grids that prove unusable for collaborators.
What kind of constraints should the designer look for? They fall into three main categories:
- Technical constraints determine the delivery of the design solution. They include the target screen resolution and the generation or “modernity” of the target Web browser, two critical factors for any design. Often, technical constraints regarding a site’s publishing system are important elements as well; the designer needs to consider limitations that such systems might impose on how the content is output. A publishing system frequently affects how content creators produce content for publishing, the workflow, which in turn influences the kind of design solution that can be put into place.
- Business constraints determine the very purpose of the solution. Whether it’s to increase visitor traffic, time spent on a site, click-through performance to advertisements, or conversions of site visitors to customers, these goals are the most important imperatives for any design solution. The designer should consider branding, positioning, and marketing considerations as well. Finally, she should fully assess the business’s ability to maintain the solution she creates: who will need to work with the grid after it’s completed, and what are their skills.
- Content and editorial constraints determine the production of the content. They account for the different forms content might take, such as the types of articles, their length and the length of their headlines and summaries, pull-quotes, images and embedded content such as video and interactive elements, data tables and charts, and so forth.
Of course, designers will bemoan the inconvenience of constraints, or perhaps the thorniness of some of the particular constraints they must contend with. If only those constraints were lifted, if only the problem were slightly different, then the solution would be much easier to arrive at or more elegant in nature.
However, these constraints have a silver lining: in some ways they might make a problem more difficult, but they can also make it easier to arrive at a design. Comprehensive solutions like grids can often benefit from being built around one or two nonnegotiable constraints, immovable requirements that can’t be easily altered during the design process. To begin with, they can directly influence the proportions of a grid, the very sizes of the units, columns, and regions that the designer constructs. These kinds of constraints might appear to limit the options available to a designer, they very often also have the effect of increasing a designer’s inventiveness. The more wide open a design problem and the less restrictive the constraints, the less a designer is likely to make those insightful leaps of logic that are the hallmark of great design. Nonnegotiable constraints can help spur a designer to do this. Whether it’s locking in a particular dimension, a technological imperative, an advertising unit, or some other factor that a designer must work around rather than conveniently modify to her own needs—having one immovable requirement can be enormously useful.