Constraints and measurement

These are the two axes of professional design and engineering.

Did you produce within the constraints?

Did you deliver measurable results?

That’s it.

Good design doesn’t exceed the available resources and produces measurable change against the agreed upon objectives.

Great design is better than good design because it uses fewer resources and/or creates even better results.

If you need to build a bridge, yes, of course you could build one out of unobtainium and even an amateur could build one that can’t carry truck traffic, but a professional engineer eagerly accepts the constraints she signed up for and insists on measuring just how much wear and tear the bridge can actually handle.

Direct marketing, curriculum design, product testing, movie-making–they all live within the axes of constraints and performance.

They just opened the long-awaited Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, previously one of the worst major airports in the world. And while it’s shiny, the failures of engineering and design are everywhere. At 6 am, the line for the ladies room is 20 people long. The space constraints can’t be eased (constraints enable architecture) but the throughput would have been easy to measure at the blueprint stage. This part of the billion-dollar facility had just one job, and it failed.

The same is true for the design of the simple coffee stand. It doesn’t require a breakthrough in retail engineering to create an espresso bar that can serve grumpy pre-caffeinated travelers with speed and grace. But despite the hard work of the tradespeople who followed the plans, the plans themselves were defective. The outcome of their poor design decisions is obvious to anyone looking at the line of 30 people.

Forward motion happens when we see the best practices of our craft and exceed them. The privilege of design and engineering comes with the responsibility to be measured, and to redo our work when it doesn’t measure up.

“Give me constraints” and “Measure my performance” are rarely heard, except when talented and passionate designers go to work.


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