Boundaries are a good thing. So is breaking them.
Before I started working as a designer at Fastspot, I was doing design and front end development for a health tech startup. I became so bogged down by the rote nature of the field and the constraints of designing in a “just make it work,” dev-focused environment that I lost my way as a designer. Hell, I even lost my interest in—and ability to see—design.
Then around the holidays I saw the Matisse cut-outs exhibit at the MOMA. Matisse’s cut-outs are very graphical. Some were even commissioned as poster/book/interior design pieces. Yet there is such a loose, languid beauty to the shapes and compositions. And those color combinations! Sometimes stark, sometimes harmonious, sometimes vibrating—just like the jazz music that inspired them.
As design becomes increasingly digital and interactive, it also becomes increasingly difficult to push boundaries. Usability becomes a foundation of design, and our design lexicon shrinks as our audience expands.
I left the exhibit with a renewed excitement about design because what I had just seen was design-y but was not at all design. I attacked my portfolio with gleeful abandon, pushing myself to go beyond my own boundaries as a designer. Three months later, I accepted a position at Fastspot.
Design is bound by rules, guides, grids, theories and systems. It has to be, because its job is to communicate information. It’s an eternally renewing challenge, and one of the main reasons I love being a designer.
But as design becomes increasingly digital and interactive, it also becomes increasingly difficult to push those boundaries, or even jump outside them for a second. Usability becomes a foundation of design, and our design lexicon shrinks as our audience expands.
Paul Woods, Design Director at Edenspiekermann, writes, “The role of [a] visual interactive designer [is] largely that of a product designer. Given the fact the medium to which mass content is consumed is no longer static, design needs to [be] approached from a user-centric perspective.”
On the other hand, art has freedom and exploration built into it, almost by—um—design. At various times and to varying degrees rules, theories and techniques have dominated the art world, too. But in the modern era, artists have been allowed, even expected, to break rules and push boundaries.
Degas' "Jockeys Before the Race" broke convention with its bisecting pole.
Of course, feeling beholden to constantly push boundaries can be stifling in its own right. It can also lead to some really bad art. But at least the freedom is there to explore an individual sense of visual logic without having to worry about people “getting” it.
Am I advocating for incorporating some of the visual and emotional liberties of art into design? Hell no. Is there inherent vice in requiring designers to work within boundaries and limitations? Nope.
But a danger does present itself when we have been coloring inside the lines for so long that we forget to—or worse, can’t—remember that there’s a whole other world outside those lines. After all, we’re people, too. Creative people. And we need to feel the excitement of limitless possibility every once in awhile to keep our juices flowing.
So make it part of your routine to ignore your kindergarten teacher and go color outside the lines for a bit. Or immerse yourself in someone else’s line-obliterating work. Or just let a cool wave of possibility wash over your furrowed brow when you’re feeling stuck.
You may end up not using a single thing that you’ve found inspiring. But you’ll be surprised at just how much of that sense of freedom and creativity can seep into your work. You might even end up pushing some boundaries—your own or the community’s—without even realizing it.