Design Evolves by Constraint

3 min readFeb 18, 2017


St Paul’s Cathederal, from english wikipedia user Diliff (source)

I’ve been thinking on where design comes from and I’ve come to believe in an idea about design, one that continues to grow on me — that design evolves by constraint. Even where design is driven by, and takes advantage of technologies that seem to give us more freedom, it’s the constraints of these new media that give us their most memorable works.

It’s a fascinating thing that many designs so deeply influential in our culture just wouldn’t exist without the problems of creating them — problems which were themselves only secondary to the goals the product intended to solve.

Recently, as I was taking a bus past Westminster Abbey, I observed how much of its distinctive cathedral shape is down to the constraints of building a structure of such a size — these huge, beautiful vaulted ceilings impose enormous horizontal stress on any building to contain them, and the intricate and distinctive spired flying buttress systems that define the overall form of cathedrals were the best engineers of the time had for preventing these structures collapsing under their own weight.

The beautiful decorative hemicircular arches and hemispherical ceilings are formed to dissipate weight; the ostentatious structures of the altar are formed to support its canopy, then embellished; the multilayered chandeliers, hanging with gleaming glass beads and candelabra are designed to compensate for the low light output of candles with numbers; even the elaborate, decorative Corinthian columns carved out of the Portland limestone walls exist because they throw back to an architectural style made most memorable by the columns supporting it.

I worried, then, about the web. Technology is so powerful, so freeing! What will be the internet’s selvedge jeans? What will be the web’s pixel art? The web’s ANSI art? What design will the web be remembered for that’s so defined by its medium?

It’s fascinating to look at the first design on the web. Initially, it was designed to host scientific articles, and web pages appeared as such. Over time, and with its gathering popularity, elements of traditional graphic design came in, but these had to be resized to be smaller to get down people’s tiny internet connections to become icons. People started using background images for texture effects like marble or starry space. Web pages in 1996 were defined by the wacky, web colour palletes that could be described by HTML, and the meagre selection of fonts that came with Windows.

I don’t think my worries were ever justified. There will always be web designs that fight the medium by using huge, image-mapped photos of content designed with for-print principles, but even the space jam website back then was really working in a unique web style of its own — working with the medium, instead of against it.

And that’s the thing — I was originally intending to write this article about how I was happy to see in the flat design zeitgeist, the web was finding its own way, defined by the constraints of its own medium, and inspired by everything around it, but now I see that the web has always really been doing its own thing. Those shitty midi websites with garish animated gifs and under-construction icons? A product of the time and its medium, and just as much an important design choice to history as the interfaces of the latest iOS or Android.


thanks to kengyi for proof-reading and editing this article. I always appreciate it.