The Magic of Limitations

“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic – being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle. These are all things that would have been considered magic a few hundred years ago.”

– Elon Musk

I learned an important lesson a few years ago from a design leader working at Apple. He said the more constraints you have, the more magical your designs tend to become. This post is intended to take you through what I’ve learned thus far as a result of that encounter and hopefully allow you to see life’s limitations as a springboard of possibilities.

Growing up I loved the concept of magic and owned a few magic kits. I never got to put my magic to work in front of a large audience until a traveling magic show came to perform at our elementary school. Every teacher was asked to pick a student from their class to be in the show. I was selected and I have to admit I was apprehensive as I have always been quite introverted. I did however love the idea of being able to try out a newly learned trick and finally having an audience, even if it was the entire school.

That morning I met with the magic company so they could teach me and the others who were chosen how to perform all of the tricks for the show later that afternoon. I was paired up with another boy to do an escape from a large trunk. The trick was they would put the other boy inside of the trunk, lock it, and I would stand on top of the trunk to “ensure he couldn’t escape.” The magician placed a hula hoop attached to a curtain around us so the audience couldn’t see us for a few moments and then “magically” the boy inside the trunk would appear on top of it. I would also magically disappear. What the audience didn’t know was the trunk did lock as a volunteer from the audience proved, but on the inside was a small lever that allowed the person inside to unlock it. Luckily the trick went off without a hitch, I disappeared, and my schoolmates were amazed or at least entertained.

I’m in my mid-thirties now so it has been quite a few years since that show but even in my professional years, I’m still intrigued by the concept of magic. Most companies who offer their customers an experience have used the word magic in their products. Disney is one of the most famous companies that like to make its customers forget their problems by bringing them back to their childhood as soon as they enter the gates. Disneyland has even branded itself “The Magic Kingdom” and it is hard to walk away from your experience at one of their parks or media properties without feeling the magic. Where things get interesting in the professional world is when you limit yourself because time and time again I’ve found those constraints to be what drives some of the most creative things I’ve done.

Magical Web Design
When you give a web designer 1280+ pixels to design a desktop-centric website they won’t hesitate to fill the page with features and content because they have the space to do so. If you however give that same designer 640px (iPhone resolution etc) they tend to stop and reconsider every pixel because they are now space constrained. The less space you have to work with, the more difficult it is to meet the user’s needs.  Those consuming your design will expect magical things to happen with each interaction because interacting with a smaller device, say a phone, is oftentimes more difficult for them. In the webspace, it is interesting because if I was to ask you to think of the last website you went to that you would describe as “magical” you might have a difficult time, right? However, if I was to ask you to tell me about a time when you interacted with your smartphone and it did something “magical” you would have no problem thinking of an example.

The best example of this principle is when I first used Shazam on my smartphone. Being able to hold up my phone within the proximity of a song playing and have it tell me the artist and song title was magical. Another great example was I tried Uber for the first time a few weeks ago and I have to say that experience was also magical. If you are not familiar with Uber it allows you to get transportation, often within a few minutes, right from the tap of a button on your smartphone. You can see how long it will take for your ride to arrive, where it is on a map, and as soon as you get out of the car you are instantly billed and asked to rate the interaction.

Magical Writing
I’ve always been someone who loves to write, but often find myself jumping from idea to idea rarely publishing most drafts. I have found the projects with a deadline, or often, a sudden deadline are those I tend to finish. The reason why projects with deadlines likely get finished as compared with the others is you will be held accountable for meeting that deadline, or in other words, you now have a fixed constraint. When writing try and give yourself a deadline to finish or give yourself rules like not being able to use the backspace key to free write your first draft.

Magical Video Moments
In the past when I’ve had to create videos it is usually designed to educate and entertain the audience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve created something I thought was fantastic only to be told to “cut the length in half.” I’ve heard things like “people these days don’t have time to watch a five-minute video” or “it has to be a minute or less.” What is interesting is although I initially liked the unedited 5-minute video, time after time the final video tends to be better because of the constraints I was provided.

General Creativity
“We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.” – Phil Hansen

One of my favorite examples of someone who has been able to leverage a constraint in life to make something magical is Phil Hansen who “developed an unruly tremor in his hand that kept him from creating the pointillist drawings he loved. Hansen was devastated, floating without a sense of purpose. Until a neurologist made a simple suggestion: embrace this limitation…and transcend it.”

Embrace the Shake | Phil Hansen | TED Talks

Your Magical Findings
Have you found life’s limitations have helped you create magical moments? Tell me about your experience.

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