Limiting Your Tools Makes You A Better Designer / by Gavin Lau

I remember when I started out being a designer in my little apartment back in Austria. At the time I wasn’t calling myself a designer just yet, because I was mostly coding websites. 15 years ago I would call myself more of a “Webmaster”. I still think that sounds awesome.

Anyways. I remember that I made about $400 a month as a computer scientist apprentice, just enough to cover rent & food. I had a little bit of equipment but not really much.

I was always jealous of some of my friends who had all the gadgets I wanted. A fancy MacBook, a nice display, a great camera etc.

I envied them and told myself that if I would have those gadgets and tools too, I could do much better work.

I often came up with excuses that I can’t do certain projects because I really need that new camera or gadget. I used it as an excuse to procrastinate. (I still do) For me, limited access to tools & gadgets seemed to also limit my creative output. At least that’s what I told myself. Looking back at it today, it was nothing more than a cheap excuse.

While I always thought that expensive gadgets will make my work better, I learned it has been a lie all along. Even today, I still get tricked in thinking that way sometimes.

When I look back, I strongly believe that some of my best work was done when I had a limited amount of tools available.

The moment I don’t have the best camera available, or the best computer or materials, I come up with alternative solutions that usually pushes the creative idea even further.

We all know that constraints are often the driver of it all. Without constraints we would not be able to do anything. Doing “whatever you want” is often more a curse than a blessing.

But then, the moment we have constraints we like to complain. “If I would have had more time, the work would be better”. That’s usually what we tell ourselves, and it’s bullshit.

Few people are good with time management. If you give me four weeks of time for a project, most of the decision making happens within the last seven days. I function best under pressure, with tangible constraints. Most people do.

The same goes for equipment. Today I have a vast arsenal of tools & gadgets available. But does this make me a better designer? Not at all. I would even say the contrary.

All the tools & gadgets paralyze me. It’s the famous Paradox of Choice in action. More is not more, it’s less. Today I have the computer, the camera, the microphone, the lenses and everything else I always wanted. Still, I don’t think my work improved just because of it.

Being aware of this today, I do everything I can to design my own constraints. These constraints might be artificial, we have to create them ourselves.

The last five years I always participated in the Cannes Young Lions competition, an event by the Cannes Lions Festival. It works like this:

On the date of the competition, you get a written briefing from a imaginary client telling you what problem to solve.

Then you have exactly 24 hours to do it. You are not allowed to ask any questions. 24 hours later you need to upload the deliverable. You are not even allowed to present your work, it has to speak for itself. (In my category “Print Advertising” your deliverable is a one page print ad in a magazine)


There are many reasons why a competition like this is amazing:

1. You only have 24h, get your shit together.

2. I don’t even work in advertising. It’s a completely new challenge for me.

3. Limited time means you have to focus on the idea. There is just no time for time consuming execution. That’s when you really learn that fancy Photoshop effects or 3D renderings are just distraction unless they ARE the idea. The same goes for writing beautiful code, no one cares.

4. Learn to manage your time within just 24h. Don’t forget to eat and sleep. Not sleeping might lead to poor decisions in the final hour. But sleeping also means, you lose time. What do you chose?

5. You have to balance between what idea to execute. Should you do something that is good for the client, or the big bang that the judges will love to see? These might be two different ideas.

Constraints breed creativity. They force you to act, to move, think sharp and find a solution.

The greatest ideas are often born out of struggle, never out of comfort.

Sometimes the constraints & limitations are already there. Sometimes we have to create them ourselves. If you find yourself stuck, limit your tools.