Webstock: Aza Raskin, Design is the Beauty of Turning Constraints Into Advantages

This week I’m at Webstock, a lovely conference in New Zealand. I’m doing my best to write little blog posts about the amazing presentations. Please forgive any typos, etc. If you’re here too, come write a haiku at Automattic’s booth.

For the last couple of years, Aza Raskin (@aza) has been working on helping bring design to solving health challenges. Solving difficult problems happens by changing how you ask the question. The big meta problem of design is figuring out how to ask the right question.

In 1959, Henry Kramer had a dream that people should be able to fly under their own power. He put up a challenge of 50k pounds to anyone who could build a device for flying a couple meters above the ground between two points. Double the award for someone who flew across the English Channel. No one could solve it.

Paul Maccready in 1977 said that most participants were trying to solve the wrong problem. The real question was “how can you build an airplane to fly under human power that can be repaired in hours?” Other participants would build an airplane in 12 or 18 months, try to fly it once, and it would break. Paul was able to solve the challenge in 8 months by reframing the question.

“Science is in the business of embracing failure because it’s only through failure that we learn.”

It’s not about thinking outside the box, because that means there are no constraints. Instead, it’s about figuring out which box to think inside. “Constraints give you permission to think about something smaller.” Architecture provides perfect examples of thinking inside the box because you often have to deal with specific physical requirements:

The origin of the 140 character limit for text messages is also one of constraints. The person who made the determination wrote out everything you might communicate with a typewriter. Then he measured each line.

Creativity comes from constraint, and asking the right question is the most important part of design. Two more important ideas:

  • Perceptual scope – How do you see things (to what degree do you see the forest vs. the trees)
  • Conceptual scope – How you classify what you see (e.g. of a list, which items are furniture)

On the science of this, you’d look at how obstacles change someone’s perceptual and conceptual scopes. Generally, thinking of challenges as obstacles to overcome makes people think broader and more creatively.

If you encounter a detour on your drive home from work, you’re more likely to pick something new to eat for dinner. Getting out of your habits is very important. Adding an obstacle changes your perceptual scope.

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