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How One Designer Learned to Love Constraints

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Jul 12 2019

Nap-trapped (noun): When an infant falls asleep on a person in such a way that they are rendered immobile. As in: On maternity leave, I often found myself nap-trapped in a position that demanded complete stillness of all extremities… apart from my right arm. This constraint inspired a somewhat esoteric design research experiment that I took on—sometimes literally—with one hand tied behind my back.

It turns out there’s a strong correlation between social media use and nap entrapment. Personally, I found my Instagram use skyrocketed during the first four months of my then-newborn’s life. And during the entrapment days, two Instagram accounts really stood out from the rest. The first was the actor/rapper Will Smith’s energetic, curious, family-friendly account. His posts are a mix of throwback photos featuring Jeff Goldblum, comparisons of his baby pictures to Rhianna, and vintage videos of wife Jada mouthing off to Eazy-E about feminism.

The second belonged to the musician and artist Patti Smith. Her account is poetic, reflective, and sincere. Its posts range from a meditation on the morning light playing upon her “thinking chair,” to fanning out hard over Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation. Or maybe it was a hankering to fit some synthesis—the IDEO designer's process of creating a cohesive narrative from a sea of nuanced human stories—into my maternity leave. But I grew intrigued by their common last name.

Thus came constraint number two: Could one create a captive, compelling Insta feed, one that guides the viewer on an engaging, winding, whimsical journey, featuring only Smiths? What story would come out of weaving multiple online personalities together? It was synthesis, but with other people’s lives.

To make things really interesting, I added two more Smith feeds. Kevin, one of the masterminds behind films like Clerks and Dogma, balances goofball humor with poignant reflections on life and health. Singer Sam, the fourth and final Smith, is a modern day crooner who keeps his posts pithy and punchy.

Together, the four Smith feeds created balance in a random sort of harmony. Squinting from just the right angle, I was surprised to find common threads in their posts. Stills from Sam’s iconographic performance stages flowed seamlessly into Patti’s gently-lit trip to La Recoleta cemetery. Kevin’s collection of Weebles set up Sam’s visit to a trinket-ridden open air market, before handing off to Will’s portrait of an eclectic man’s fashion in Tybee Island, GA.

With nothing more than a ubiquitous last name and fame connecting these four, gestural themes emerged. Parenthood, childhood, dental hygiene, activism, Rhianna.

These are more than Smith themes. These are modern human themes. But Instagram’s real-time format muddied this story. I wondered if there was a way to create a thematic flow—one long, chaptered story—rather than a chronological one. The solution lied in a third, and final, constraint: a fixed feed. One in service of a single story in time, rather than a constantly evolving one.

And so, Selected_Smiths was born. A static Instagram narrative, comprised of snaps from all four instagram feeds. The final edit was made on July 22, 2018. 59 posts total, culled from the original Smiths’ feeds. Best viewed from bottom to top and with 30 minutes to spare, so as to read all comments and hashtags.

What started as a nap-trapped experiment turned into a lesson on the power of constraint. Selected_Smiths was born of three constraints: one situational, one coincidental, and one editorial. If Selected_Smiths is the steel ball, then these constraints were the bumpers in the pinball machine of my mind. Launched with gusto, frantically bouncing past flashing lights and through sound fields, the bumpers present a barrier, ricocheting the ball to loss or victory. Constraint demands perseverance, triggers ingenuity, and every once in awhile helps you execute on a weird idea.

Like creating one story with four people who share the same last name. Funny, serious, flip, human—the internet really does it all.

  • Grace Nicklin

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO Cambridge
    Whether it be via podcast, novel, a living room couch, or even channeled through a spiritual medium (this is a real thing), Grace loves hearing peoples’ stories.
  • Brian Standeford

    Communication Designer, IDEO Cambridge
    Brian is a graphic designer and illustrator. He specializes in provocative storytelling and brand through bold, minimal design.
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