Design under Constraint

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

When I arrived at Calvin College as a first-year student considering engineering as my major, my orientation session took an unexpected turn:  I got a note scheduling me for an appointment to visit a professor of English.  I naively wondered whether someone had mixed up the two majors and sent me in the wrong direction.  I found the room where several faculty were sitting at desks waiting to meet with their scheduled guests.  Making my way through, I spotted him:  Professor Stanley Wiersma.  He had a broad, flowing white beard down to his upper chest.  Reading glasses perched on his nose, while he scribbled some notes on the papers at his table.  He was rather portly, rounding out a sweater under a sport coat as he sat heavily on the small stool behind the small desk.  As I approached the desk of this man who looked rather like Santa Claus in a sport coat, I had no idea that he would change my life. 

Professor Wiersma greeted me cheerfully and gestured for me to sit in the guest chair in front of him.  His personality bubbled out quickly with a twinkle in his eye as he asked me a few questions about my life, hopes, and dreams.  I warmed to him immediately.  The purpose of the meeting?  He hoped to convince me to take the honors section of English 101, which he himself would be teaching that fall.  He anticipated my question:  “Why would an engineer want to take honors English?” He answered his own proposed question quickly.  “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. VanderLeest, that every career would benefit from good writing skills?”  He explained that while we would still cover the mechanics of grammar, parts of speech, and so forth, the focus of the course would be something wonderful.  We would read poetry. 

Wait.  Poetry?  How is this better? 

It wasn’t just better, it was amazing.  We studied the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot.  Amazing it was, but it wasn’t easy.  Eliot’s poetry had layer upon layer of meaning.  His prose was no less dense, where one could mine for intellectual gems for hours in just a single essay.  Wiersma was a gentle teacher, blithely guiding the conversation along in each class, cultivating good thinking and respectful debate around the ideas we encountered in Eliot.  Wiersma was also a challenging professor.  He expected honors students to produce excellent work each time.  About one month into the course, I handed in a paper only to get it returned to me shortly afterward, chiding me to rewrite it because I could do better than that.  Later, for one of the final papers, I was writing about one of Eliot’s master works, “The Waste Land”.  The day before it was due, as I was studiously typing up my paper, it slowly dawned on me that my analysis was shallow and uninspiring.  My paper dissected the poem into its composite bones and sinew, but completely missed the soul and spirit at the heart of the work.  My respect for Wiersma led to a creeping dread that he would find my paper lacked any originality.  I worked harder to avoid banality, but without success as I plunked further words on the page.  At the same time,  I was getting distracted with thoughts of the most recent set of poems we had read, the Four Quartets

Those who know me well realize that I am a planner and organizer.  I rarely wait until the last minute, planning ahead to get a project done with lists and tasks and dates laid out in a grid.  You will thus understand how difficult my next action was for me personally.  I yanked a half-typed page out of the typewriter, scooped up my already typed pages, and tossed them aside to start over on an entirely new paper from scratch—with just one evening to write the entire thing.  I wrote furiously, working out a much more original approach that had been nagging at the back of my mind.  My idea was to explore the earlier poem of “The Waste Land” through the lens of the later Four Quartets poems.  The Quartets provided a structure against which I could understand Eliot’s earlier ideas.  They provided an echo whose reverberation whispered deeper meaning into the antecedent meter.  By self-imposing the constraint of structuring my analysis of one poem through another, I had hit upon a more interesting, novel approach.  This was the paper that Wiersma would want.  I typed furiously late into the night as idea after idea arose from the parallels and harmony between the poems.  I turned it in on time the next morning, and when I received it back,  there was a personal note on the cover from Wiersma, expressing his appreciation for my unique approach. 

Years later, I came across a quote attributed to Eliot that crystallized not only my experience in writing that paper, but also rang true more broadly in my experience:  “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”  This is the strange paradox:  design under constraint does not stifle ideas, but instead produces creativity and innovation.  Necessity is mother of invention.

Apple understands the principle of design under constraint.  When developing a new app for the iPhone, they start with pencil sketches of the interface.  The iPhone has limited screen real estate, so they use paper printed with the outline of the iPhone on it, drawn ten times.  The development team includes engineers and artists.  They work together to sketch user interface ideas in pencil within the constraints of those shapes.  Each version out of the ten must be a different design.  The first few are usually easy.  But after five or six, it becomes challenging to think of yet another way to let the user interact with the application.  By the tenth one, the team is taxed to the limit.  They brainstorm and stretch their creativity to provide one more possible solution.  Why try so hard to make ten?  Aren’t the first few likely the most intuitive, since the team thought of them first?  It turns out that intuitive, creative design is often not the first thought, but rather the thought that came only after a mighty intellectual struggle.  It is often one of those last few versions that turns out to be the truly elegant, amazing, beautiful design. 

Good engineers understand the principle of design under constraint.  One is always faced with trade-offs in designing a technical solution to a problem.  We can make automobiles safer during a crash by bulking up the frame, but only at the cost of fuel efficiency.  We can make laptops faster, but only at the cost of lower battery life.  Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century American architect and engineer recognized this inherent interplay when developing building structures:  “Don’t fight forces, use them.”

We are finite creatures with a physical, bodily existence.  However, our bodily limitations are not something we are meant to escape.  God created humans with body, mind, and spirit.  Dyer recognizes this in his book on technology:  “The use of the ark seems to indicate that the physical world—and what we make with it—is so important to God that he graciously chooses to use what we make in his plan of redemption.  He doesn’t need to use what we make, but apparently it pleases him to do so.” (John Dyer, From the Garden to the City:  The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011, p. 103)  Our corporeality and finiteness are constraints that give us focus.  They are limits against which our creativity and imagination must push and stretch.  We also encounter this paradox of constraint producing freedom in the New Testament:  “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:25, NIV).  As Fuller admonished architectects, so too James admonishes us not to “fight forces” (i.e., the law), but rather to find freedom in honoring the law.

I delight in this paradox.  The struggle against constraints while solving a problem can run the emotional gamut of anguish, frustration, and despair.  Nevertheless, that moment of inspiration eventually arrives when a new idea suddenly dawns and one sees through the problem to an elegant solution.  The satisfaction of solving the problem is a great joy.  Design under constraint can produce beauty and wonder.  It is part and parcel of our physical reality and we are created to flourish within that structure.

Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest