Context and Constraints in Design

Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are multiple variables that affect the ultimate outcome of our designs. On the whole, these variables can be defined as the “context” and “constraints” that affect us as we design. Today, I’d like to talk a little about both of these, and their place in the design process.


The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.

That’s context, or at least the definition of it. When we design, we should focus on the context of the ultimate outcome of what we’re designing. For example, if the outcome of your design process is a website, which devices and connections will your site be accessed using? The context of an iPhone XS on super fast 4G is very different to the context of a Nokia 3310 over 2G or 3G networking, yet both of these devices are perfectly capable of accessing the web. The device from which someone accesses your website defines the context.

For Holistic Design, the idea of context can be expanded out to a near-infinite scale. For example, a holistic designer may look at the geo-political, economical or ecological context and impact of what they design before finalising it. In a world with finite resources, involving the environment as part of your context can be seen as a brand-positive move, and a responsible move.


Limitation or restriction

A constraint is something that limits or restricts the design process. In most projects, the major constraints are time and monetary budget. But, constraints could also include a limited palette of colours, or a set material the end product must be made of, or a size limit for example.

It has long been said that constraints are what push creativity. Great designs come when people work hard to overcome the constraints placed in front of them, to create an innovative product. For example, the Smart Car (made by Mercedes) is a car that was designed to fit in half of a traditional city parking space, allowing for more of them to navigate a city and park. This constraint has existed through the life of the product, and has defined its design since the first model.

Designing for Them

Good design is design that is aware of the context and constraints around it, and works to include these as positive aspects of the design process and outcomes.

The cyclical process of Design Thinking and modern design practices mean that a new context or constraint could be identified at any time, but it’s during the “Explore” phase that we should try and identify as many of these as possible. The earlier we’re able to identify the context of our design and the constraints that apply to it, the sooner we’re able to include those in our design requirements and process, giving more time for the design to develop to match the real-world environment.

To design whilst ignoring context and constraints is to not really design at all. It’s to create something, that’s for sure, but likely something that’s not useful.