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Tips for Concepting: Designing with Constraints

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IDEO designer Beto Lopez shares how he used constraints to develop his concept, Prized in Every Search.
In an open and collaborative process like OpenIDEO, it's fun to go big, broad and far-reaching in our thinking and ideas. But sometimes our efforts together – like in our Business Impact Challenge – can benefit from constraints.
As an IDEO designer I've learned that constraints, or boundaries, can influence our efforts in both real and imagined ways. On the one hand, constraints can offer us very useful guide posts for what's relevant or topical, while also letting us know what's off-course for our work. On the other, sometimes we impose constraints on our thinking without realizing it. In this way, constraints can act more like artificial biases that limit our designs, rather than focus points to help us reach success.
To help everyone understand how constraints work, I thought I'd share some thoughts to inspire our efforts in our Business Impact Challenge Concepting phase.

Step 1: Acknowledge Constraints

The best way to prepare for our concepts is to first list out all of the possible constraints we can identify. For the Business Impact Challenge, you can start doing this by reading through the challenge Brief to uncover which constraints seem important for our designs. After that, what other constraints do you think matter to this challenge? 
Constraints aren't always explicit, many times they're inferred, so your best bet is to get them out on paper. In my own interpretation, this challenge is asking us to design concepts that:
  • Focus on for-profit businesses
  • Celebrate stories of for-profit businesses whose innovations produce world benefit
  • Identify ways to help other for-profit businesses refine their innovation strategies to include world benefit.
I also know from the Brief that the Fowler Center is interested in creating a Nobel-like prize to recognize businesses that act as agents of world benefit. So, some other constraints for our concepts might include:
  • An explanation of how the best examples of these businesses will be surfaced and selected
  • A process to share and archive the stories that are celebrated through this prize
  • An outline for how this prize will be funded and financially self-sustaining.
It's worth noting that this is just a first stab at the constraints, and this list is unique to how I interpret the design challenge. What other constraints do you identify by reading the brief or thinking about your own approach to our question?
Also, the concepts we design may not address all constraints at once; in fact many concepts will only address a few at a time. Eventually through collaboration, refinement and prototyping, a concept will take shape where all of these constraints are being met.

Step 2: Review and Evaluate Constraints

This stage in the process is all about examining whether all of these constraints are real or imagined. Ask yourself: "Do I need all of these?"
As I thought about it I realized I had imposed another constraint – that of time – to this design challenge. Without knowing it, I had assumed that this Nobel-like prize would be offered once a year. Did anyone else do that? This illustrated one of my own biases that was limiting my thinking about the challenge. What happens when I remove this constraint – or push myself to think beyond this pre-set amount of time? For example, what if I come up with a way to identify and celebrate an exemplary business every second? Would I still meet the challenge Brief? Yes!

Step 3: Play with Constraints to Inspire New Designs

Removing my own constraint of time, I started to ask myself: what might I design if time weren't an issue?
The first thing that came to mind is to showcase a business that innovates for world benefit every time someone uses a search engine. I don't know for sure, but I would bet that someone is searching for something on the web just about every second of the day. This is where the seed for my idea, Prized in Every Search, came from.
Removing this artificial constraint was like lighting a spark – not just for a new concept, but for a new way of considering what we're being asked to do in this challenge.
And one final, related tip: draw your idea, even if it's abstract. It will force you to recognize elements of your concept that you might not have considered before or that you could use help with. In the case of Prized in Every Search, the mechanism to identity the audience for which the business advertisement targets is not well developed. Acknowledge the weakness so others can chime in and build on your idea, which in this case Vincent did with Wiki for Business World Benefit. Talk about teamwork!
What constraints might you play around with – either by adding or removing them – to help inspire new thinking in your concept designs? We're excited to see what everyone comes up with in the last week and a half of  Concepting.
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