Analytical 14: Constraints

29 May, 2017


Constraints foster creativity apparently. Let’s explore how if that’s actually true and if the concept can help us.

Transcript available
[Music] Everything can be improved, iterated and refined. Don't think that's true? Maybe you haven't analysed it enough. Calculator choices, carefully considered, absolutely analytical. This episode is brought to you by ManyTricks, makers of helpful apps for the Mac. Visit for more information about their amazingly useful apps. We'll talk about them more during the episode. Analytical is part of the Engineered Network. To support our shows, including this one, head over to our Patreon page. And for other great shows, visit today. Constraints foster creativity, or something like that. I've heard quite a few different subtle variations on that expression in recent years and it's a fascinating idea that appears to be counterintuitive, at least partly. One would think that if you had complete freedom that that would lead to many, many varied creative ideas, but no. So why is that? I suppose our natural tendency when solving a problem is to to first delve into our own personal histories and think about how equivalent or near equivalent problems were solved in our pasts. And let's say we were asked to move a very heavy box several hundred feet without damaging it, you know, straightforward enough. And in the past, we've just picked up a box and carried it. Never heard of a wheelbarrow or a trolley before, never used a vehicle before. So we'll just pick it up and carry it because that's always worked before. so why wouldn't we just do that again? Do what you've always done and you get what you've always got. Unsurprisingly, oh well. Anyway, now if we're told you cannot carry the box, suddenly we look around and think about that constraint and suddenly the problem, the solution to that problem is forced down a different path and takes a different turn. Well, there's a wheel over there as some wood. Maybe I could build something that resembles a trolley, maybe a rope and some small logs. I could roll it along and then pull it maybe. Then we get creative because, well, frankly, we have no option but to be more creative and to try something different, something we haven't done before because we haven't had those constraints in the past. now we do, we're going to do something different. The same kind of concept applies creatively with the evolution of products. And you know, they're also obviously driven by their own constraints. One of the more interesting ones in recent memory is the mobile phones. Mobile phones these days are characterized by a large piece of glass that's touch sensitive, voice and data connectivity, and the internet is at our fingertips as it were. The evolution of the phone though, it started out with two very, very big constraints. The first one, well from where it's at up to where it is today anyway, the first one was portable power. In other words, how do I carry all of that energy with me to run a device that can do all those things. The second one was the screen technology. So as LCD screens moved to LED screens with greater and greater pixel densities, now we incorporated capacitive touch. Those former constraints have sort of given way and that has allowed what we all now use and frankly I think are starting to take for granted, that allowed all that to develop. As battery densities are improving from you know the first the common rechargeable battery was the NiCd, then to the Nickel Metal Hydrides. And now today to the Lithium Ions that we use. So a couple of that with lower and lower operating voltages for the silicon and hence the power and the parallel processing of that silicon allowed phones to shrink and still make several days of usage before you absolutely need to charge the things. 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Resolutionator is so simple, a drop down menu from the menu bar and you can change the resolution of your display to whatever you like, it's currently connected to your Mac, but the best part, you can even set your resolution to fit more pixels than are actually there. It's very handy when you're stuck on your laptop and you need more screen real estate. Now that's just five of their great apps and that's only half of them. All of these apps have free trials and you can download them from or you can easily try them out before you buy them. They're all available from their website or through the Mac App Store. However, if you visit the URL, you can take advantage of a special discount. They're very helpful apps exclusively for engineer network listeners. Simply use Pragmatic 17, that's Pragmatic the word and 17 the numbers in the discount code box in the shopping cart to receive 25% off. This offer is only available to Engineered Network listeners for a limited time so take advantage of it while you can. Thank you to ManyTricks for sponsoring the Engineered Network. Constraints that haven't changed with phones are like the size of our hands. Obviously we can't have a phone that fits in the palm of our hand that's the size of a 10 inch tablet. That's not a phone anymore and you can't really hold that up against your ear to have a conversation. So that constraint is not going to change any time soon, at least I don't think it's going to. The size of our pockets, generally speaking, I guess there's some cargo pants out there, maybe, I guess, but generally speaking, no, the size of our pockets haven't changed either. We have to get our hands in and out of our pockets, which constrains how small they can be, but then again, I suppose, how big they can be is limited by how big our body is. And again, that's not something that's likely to change in a hurry anyway. Anyway, our own clumsiness is another example of a constraint that hasn't changed. We drop things. They fall in water, they hit the ground, we accidentally bang them down on things, they get in our pockets and we throw car keys in there or all sorts of other things, they get scratched. Our clumsiness, that constraint is always going to be there. I don't think that'll ever change. The weather changing Obviously, I mentioned getting wet, that's still going to happen. It's going to rain when you're out and about, you're holding your device, it's going to get wet. Again, maybe you drop it in a puddle or you splash a drink on it. Who can say, right? But that's not going to change either because that's sort of a bit of clumsiness there and weather is just weather. Well, it's going to change and you're going to be out there and it's going to get wet and oh well. They're all still there. These constraints are still there and they drive the designs as they stand today. So in a hundred years, maybe when the fashion industry is sort of like maybe everyone has a huge like tablet size pocket in the front center of their shirt, in which case that constraint could change, but how is that useful? Anyway, how is any of this discussion useful? I guess the point is I like the idea of constraints in engineering and in my own wheelhouse in software development control system user interface design. design. If I need to develop code to solve a problem and I don't have any code library and no references, no coding standards, no structure, I'm just going to hack and slash code as I see fit because I can. You know, why not? I can do whatever I feel like so I'm going to. It's a green pasture, let's just make a mess. Why not? But if it works then who cares? It may not be maintainable, it may not be readable even, but you know what? Hey, it's all good, right? Because there's no rules, There's no constraints. But all of that code is going to be new and previously untested. And if however I had a series of existing functions I've been constrained to using and these functions have been in use for many many years by many different programmers well tried, heavily tested, reliable code well I can use them and I can simplify what I need to create to reduce my development time and to leverage some of that experience. but it's also a constraint, especially if they're mandated, thou shalt use the approved function blocks on pain of frustration or something, anyway, you will do it but they become a constraint at that point and that's not necessarily a bad thing and the resulting code then must be written to incorporate them and that will require a little bit more planning up front, a little bit more design, a little bit more creativity Don't ever let anyone tell you if you're a programmer that you're not creative. That's rubbish. Absolutely you are. But anyway, is it creative? Okay, that's what we're trying to get at. I mean, apart from the fact that the result should be more reliable and easy to debug. Is it more creative? Well, creativity is relating to or involving the use of imagination or original ideas to solve a problem. If I've constrained their programming choices, they have no option but assess everything they write against the constraints that I've imposed upon them, like it or not. But the real question is, in this example, is creativity greater with the sum of many individual creative instances? Or is creativity worth more if there's less creative instances, but each instance of creativity was born of greater thinking because of the constraints. Experience shows, I think, that simpler designs or those designs where the complexity has been abstracted into highly reliable building blocks, and these blocks are more simply assembled and integrated, it tends to provide the best final result. So if that's the measure, then constraints in the coding example suggest that creativity within those constraints should generally provide a simpler and overall more creative and usable result. If you're enjoying Analytical and wanna support the show, you can, like some of our backers, Ivan, Daniel Dudley, and Chris Stone. They and many others are patrons of the show via Patreon, and you can find it at, all one word. So if you'd like to contribute something, Anything at all, it's all very much appreciated. I'd personally like to thank ManyTricks for sponsoring the Engineered Network. If you're looking for some Mac software that can do ManyTricks, remember to specifically visit this URL, manytricks, or one word, .com/pragmatic, for more information about their amazingly useful apps. Analytical is part of the Engineered Network, and you can find it at, and you can follow me on Mastodon, @chiji,, or for our shows on Twitter @Engineered_Net. Accept nothing, question everything. It's always a good time to analyze something. I'm John Chidje. Thanks for listening. (upbeat music) (music)
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John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.