In his Webstock talk, Aza Raskin shared his thoughts on design and constraints.
The most profound point in his talk is that before offering any solution, we as designers need to find the right problem to solve. Finding the right problem is the most important part of design.
I find the right problem by asking questions. These questions have to be good. (Aza mentioned the characteristics of good questions in his talk too.) The questions have to allow solutions to emerge. Different questions lead to different solutions. For example,
Q: How to reduce CO2 emission?
A: Enforce public transportation, reduce usage of air conditioners and heaters, etc.
Q: How to stop global warming?
A: Carbon trading, green plants, clean energy, etc.
The difference between the two sets of questions is that it gives different constraints (explicit or implicit) to the solution. So the shape of the solution differs but they each fits in the constraints naturally.
Christopher Alexander writes about the same point in his book Notes on the Synthesis of Form.
“…every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and the context. Good fit is a desired property of this ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context.”
Ask good questions to define the problem, then solution will emerge.
P.S. If you haven’t do so, you should check out Aza’s talk.