The Shape of Design: Chapter 3

A 2 minute read written by chad August 22, 2012

A jazz trumpet on a yellow backdrop

We work on many large-scale projects here. Structure, deadlines, and budgets don't always allow us the time and creative space that full-fledged slapdash design sessions would require. Improvisation has its time and place, but it was tough for us to pinpoint how improvisation could work here at Yellow Pencil.

Personally, I thought of improvisation as being free of restrictions. The greats of jazz had it down to a science, capable of creating masterpieces upon arriving at the studio, trumpet in hand. Of course, there was more to it than that. Many of these musicians had to meet deadlines and put food on the table. They were under immense pressure to perform.

In our discussion of the chapter, we talked about how ignoring the limitations and pressures – pushing them out of our minds and getting to work – can often lead to misguided work. What Chimero discusses is how we can realize our creative potential through improvisation by using project limitations as facilitators.

Build boundaries

Projects of all sizes often carry pretty rigid limitations – monetary or otherwise. These limitations tend to constrict creativity, but only when we perceive them as such. Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design explores how limitations allow us to take the crucial first steps in improvisation:

Rules need to be set before starting so the work has a more focused direction to travel. Saying no beforehand allows yes to be said unequivocally while working. These limitations are the fuel for improvisation, becoming the barriers that hold the sand in the sandbox so that we can play. (36)

We often cry tears into our after-work beers over strict limitations, but project restrictions should not be regarded as dreadful blockades. The way that Chimero uses the word “barrier” here is awesome. The barriers that he talks about are ones that we should build ourselves. When we take inventory of project requirements, limitations, and goals, these barriers become guidelines. Rather than fence us in, they outline our playing field. They ultimately shape our work.

Out of sight, not out of mind

With our guidelines set, we can put them aside. Somewhere out of view, but close by. We need to be free to explore our instincts, but we may also need to reach out for guidance. If we know and respect a project’s limitations from the start, we can comfortably work within the area we've been afforded.

Throughout the process, it is important to reintroduce the goals that we established at the beginning of the project. As Chimero asserts, these goals can help shape our ideas or identify the areas wherein we were misguided or completely off base.

Improvisation and creative riffing leads to so many big bright ideas, but we can bog projects down a lot of the time if we keep them flowing. Our ideas need to be continually steered by the boundaries of our project. The lines in the sand need to be continually revisited in order to keep our project on the right path.


Chimero states, “The momentum of making accelerates as ideas are quickly generated without judgment. New ideas interact with the old, and spur off into unexpected places” (39). Improvising is more than just saying yes to any idea. We should be working with a “Yes…and,” mentality. All of our ideas are acceptable, but we must build upon them, ask ourselves what comes next, and let the free flowing ideas build a framework for more.

As our ideas interact and find guidance through the established boundaries, we begin to find ourselves in unexpected places. Thisi is what keeps creative endeavours exciting. When we improvise each success comes with an element of surprise, keeping us curious and persuant.