Beauty and the Brief

Constraint is generally considered a negative word. Not for us. We believe constraint is what makes you thrive.

Constraint is generally considered a negative word. Not for us. We believe constraint is what makes you thrive.

We are liberated by constraints imposed by time, money and accessibility standards. These swiftly clarify the parameters of our work.

Designing in the absence of direction—without limitations—is to be rudderless. It is to lack purpose. And design without purpose? Well, it may be art, but it ain’t likely to solve the client’s problem. Rookie designers are often initially frustrated by the constraints of a client brief. They yearn for total creative freedom. But they learn quickly that the more stringent the brief, the more there is to problem solve, which leads to much better outcomes.

Freedom in a straightjacket

The challenge of visual design is to effectively convey information—to ensure a direct and uncluttered path between your messages and the people you need to reach. And that means being unobtrusive, too. The best designs succeed not by calling attention to themselves—not by traditional aesthetic alone—but by clearly positioning the client, product or service. To us, utility is the ultimate aesthetic. It connects our client with the greatest possible percentage of their target audience.

Just throw strikes


Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you likely know that the pitcher’s job isn’t to toss a ball just anywhere. These professionals are paid to throw their most creative pitches repeatedly through a vertical strike zone approximately half a square metre in size.

What constitutes beauty in this scenario is that the pitcher must respect and work within the constraint of the zone. That’s how they earn victories—and tens of millions of dollars each year. Content designers should be so lucky.

Is your brief answering the right questions?

In the commercial design work we undertake at Stiff, the client brief is the main source of constraint. Each brief answers a variety of questions.

We encourage our clients to include these:
  • What is the purpose of the design?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What are the diversity, inclusion and accessibility considerations?
  • What content will be used?
  • What design products will be in play?
  • What tone is required?
  • What style will best uphold the purpose?
  • What’s the budget?
  • What are the design platforms?
  • What’s the review/approval process?
  • What is the design’s intended shelf-life?
  • How much time do we have?
Is your design excluding potential customers?

Are you sure? Check out the “Just throw strikes” sidenote above. Did you notice that we do not refer to pitchers as males? If you didn’t, you now know just how simple (and transparent) inclusivity can be. We made a conscious content-design decision to be inclusive—to respect the fact that there are people of other gender identities who are also pitchers. Look at this another way: referring only to males would potentially exclude virtually half the audience we are trying to reach with this article. Where is the benefit in that?

Another aspect of constraint: accessibility

For brands targeting a broad consumer audience, design accessibility means being inclusive of the largest possible segment of the market. Some brands don’t realize the value of ensuring their print ads, social media posts and websites are accessible to people living with disabilities. According to Statistics Canada, 22 percent of Canadians identify as having a disability[1]—a number that is expected to increase in the coming decade.


To ignore people who have disabilities is to carve as many as six million Canadians out of your audience. If that is not your intention, it’s time to think differently about accessibility.

The need for accessible design is everywhere

Next time you’re approaching a major old building—a courthouse, hotel or library, for example—note how front steps were once an architectural mainstay. The notion of climbing to your destination reinforced it as lofty and important.

Today, the entrances to virtually all buildings are either at ground level or at the end of ramps. Why? To ensure they are accessible to as many people as possible. And what is true in architecture is true in graphic design. Don’t expect your user to climb to you.

Good design serves us all

Consider the OXO Swivel potato peeler, part of the company’s Good Grips line. First introduced in 1990, the product was originally designed for people with arthritis who have difficulty gripping simple kitchen tools. Yet the peeler became a market favourite because it’s easy for everyone to use.[2]

It’s useful to remember that the abilities of any one of us can be impaired to varying degrees and durations. For example, the only difference between being hard of hearing, having an ear infection or being in a very loud environment is the intensity and duration of the impairment.

Does focusing too heavily on accessibility alienate some users or degrade brands? Not if it’s done well. In fact, it’s worth noting that people in traditionally marginalized groups often express great loyalty to brands that make a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible.

[2]Of note, OXO initially included a product endorsement from the American Arthritis Foundation on the packaging. The endorsement was removed when the company learned it stigmatized those with arthritis and made those without the condition think they weren’t a target market.

Move like Jagger


The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger is an artist who has found inspiration in constraint. In one of his signature dance steps, Jagger keeps his elbows close to his sides and emphasizes the movement of his hands and shoulders. The move evolved in part out of necessity.

In the band’s earliest days, the Stones performed in small clubs where Jagger had little room for stage antics. He adapted. And what was utility became a memorable dance style (happily left to Mick).

The takeaway?

Think differently. Find inspiration in constraint. And remember that accessible design is not some misguided symptom of political correctness. It’s good business—and the right thing to do.

A look into five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.

Check out our PDF on Designing for Accessibility which looks at five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.