Design Paralysis pt.2

On Saturday, I went to Albuquerque for the day to attend the ASG convention. I do enjoy attending non-commercial sewing events. In some respects, it’s trend information that careens around in the hopper and sorts itself out later. I don’t try to make sense of it. Gal pal Sal wasn’t too keen on the idea but ended up enjoying herself and bought even more stuff than I did. I finally got to meet Connie Crawford who says she’s coming out with a new sewing book that I am looking forward to seeing (I’m not thrilled about my latest acquisition). I’ve been recommending her drafting book for some time now. She asked me to tell you to get the discount by mentioning it; it’s not on her order form but she will issue an adjustment.

Sally and I spent quite a bit of time visiting with John Marshall, an authority on Japanese Textiles and author of Make Your Own Japanese Clothes: Patterns and Ideas for Modern Wear. He’s incredibly knowledgeable as well as personable. As we were leaving the booth, it suddenly occurred to me to ask him about design paralysis, how does this happen? In response, he asked me a very interesting question, something along the lines of what would you design if you had all the money, time, equipment and skills in the world? In other words, what would you do if you had no limitations? Instantly, I knew the answer was there. Answering his own question, he said Sally and I were “too rich”. We have too much. We have the skills (more than anything), access to materials we want and that which we don’t have, we know who knows where we can get it. We have few limitations or constraints. I’d been keenly aware that I am often paralyzed by too many choices in the marketplace (see The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, a good run down is here) but I had not internalized the lesson in my role as a designer.

John’s idea is delicious, one I’ve mulled over the weekend. Not coincidentally, his response reminded me of one of my most favorite books, Against All Odds, a history of Toyota Motor Company. I’ve always felt this book is one of the most inspirational books any manufacturer could read. It’s the story of constraints and how to be successful in spite of them. It’s how to create something from nothing with everything stacked against you. Considering how the company has succeeded since their humble start, the greater story is how they’ve managed to continue innovation in spite of having become “too rich”.

John admitted he’d become too rich himself, that this was why he’d become a teacher. I suppose that explains why I’ve done that as well although I wasn’t aware of having made the choice. The problem is, I still want to make stuff if only because I can and I worry about getting rusty and out of practice. I think that if you are too rich, a solution is to create constraints. Sally has done this by committing to a donation of $1,000 to an organization she can’t stand if she doesn’t meet her goal. Since I don’t trust myself enough to do something like that, I think mine may be to get rid of stuff so I have less to choose from (something I started again in earnest last week) and to limit what I may do according to given pieces I have. The second thing that occurs to me is that buying another machine (that sexy needle-feed) may be a step in the wrong direction. But then if I don’t, I can’t sew all this leather -or velvet. Decisions, decisions. I need fewer of them.

Then I wonder, suppose and ponder about successful designers and how they manage to be prolific year after year. Not famous designers (with legendary constraints who run their own labels) but ordinary commercial designers employed by firms. You know how I always say that few designers in real life know how to sew and I’m on the fence about whether that is good or bad? Now I think that lack of sewing or pattern skills could be a pivotal reason they are successful and maybe, another reason some of us should be less consumed as to the value of designers to acquire said skills. Or you for that matter.

Feel free to fantasize…what would you do if you had all the time, materials and skills to do whatever you wanted? I think you will do less than you imagine. I know I was more creative and prolific when I knew less.

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  1. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    I have some ideas, but I’m still thinking this over, so I’ll try to comment again when I’ve figured it out more concretely. :-)

    I’m glad you had fun in Albuquerque.

  2. Elaine Good says:

    I’m glad you asked John Marshall that question. Fascinating. This may be the stimulus I need to clear out the excess stuff I’ve accumulated over the years.

  3. Babette says:

    Constraint is such a wonderful notion now that I think about it. One of my most productive and out there periods was as a student with looming deadlines for assessment, a budget dinted by not working because I was busy studying with often stupid and ridiculous design briefs that would lump a couple of extra constraints on board just to make life difficult, like making your own fabric.

    I like your idea of limiting yourself to the materials you have. However, given your area of expertise, you can totally justify the machine to work with those materials, so I’d do that. Lack of the right tools isn’t a reasonable design constraint, it’s just wrong. Time is the thing that is hard to pin yourself down to. Perhaps you need to book a market stall or other event which will force you to have product by a deadline?

  4. dosfashionistas says:

    A great deal of food for thought here. Thank you. You are one of those who pour out clarity like a fountain.

    Speaking of which, how are you coming on the Bujold books? She is supposed to have a new Miles book out around Christmas.

  5. Renee says:

    For my own purposes I find it is often helpful to impose my own constraints on design to limit the options. I do this by thinking about the stakeholders in the final design; those who will interact with the design, as well as those who will sell it. All of my market research filters in there, as well as my own design ideas, but always tethered to the goals I’ve already set for the design. I don’t actually think much about realization until the design is fairly established; perhaps because thus far I’ve always been able to find a way to accomplish the effect I was after. I do always weigh options as to relative cost and value proposition for the consumer as well. If it doesn’t add any perceived value or in some manner lower the cost of manufacturing or increase the consistency of the quality, then I just figure it doesn’t really belong in the design.

    So what would I do, given unlimited time, materials and skills? The same thing I do now, and whenever my muse strikes. Perhaps my departure from my original design roots for technical and business foci has led me to some zen design place?

  6. Charles says:

    Kathleen, I’ve been a fan of your blog for a long time, and it’s amazing how often you post things that freak me out with their mind-readeriness…. o.O I’ve been having this *exact* problem lately, and came to exactly the same conclusions you mentioned.

    I kept wondering why everything used to be so much “easier” (looking at old things and thinking “How did I come up with that!?”), and realized when you have less “stuff” (products, knowledge, or whatever), you have to make do with what you have, so the choices are easier to make, and everything (usually) works out fine. Like, color combinations seem to work better the fewer colors you have to chose from… hehehe

    “I know I was more creative and prolific when I knew less” sums it up perfectly.

    It’s ironic because people try to learn as much as they can about the things they do, but eventually you realize in doing so, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage to people with less experience and knowledge – including the younger version of yourself, which is the most frustrating part. >.< And it gets to a point where you start thinking the only thing you can do with that knowledge (since actually *making* things becomes so difficult) is to teach it to other people. That was my big “a ha” moment. It’s reassuring to see someone else (John Marshall) saying the same thing. It gives a whole new meaning to the saying “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”…. ~_^

    I was actually going to try out a “fantasy” scenario opposite to the one you you mentioned – asking myself “Would would you do if you didn’t have all these [whatevers] to chose from and had to use _this one_?” No clue how that will turn out (I have no willpower and fabrics & trims are too pretty…) but it’s less scary than actually getting rid of things…. lol

    However, I totally agree with Babette – constraint is good, but denying yourself the tools you need is just sadomasochism. If you get the needle feed machine, you can always create a feeling of constraint by hooking it up to a bicycle generator or something. :)

  7. Abby says:

    I just finished an interesting book, “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink about “why right-brainers will rule the future”. It gave some interesting exercises on designing, telling a story, learning empathy, etc. that you might find interesting. It also explained why our labor pool needs in America are changing to right-brainers.

    I find giving myself freedom to play in my sewing room, at least twice a year, the most rewarding time. I get inspirations all the time and the ideas that stay with me the longest get played with. And not all my ideas work out, but it leads to new ideas which will then lead to another idea and then finally an item I feel can be produced on a larger scale.

    For me it’s taking the essence of something I love, need, feel strongly about and making it into a sellable product. Materials or designs within my idea may have to be sacrificed due to cost, lack of raw materials, etc. but the essence of what I started with is still there in the end…or else the project does not go to the next level of a sellable product. I move on to the next idea.

    …If I had all the money, time, resources…it would be very large hand embroidered Arts & Craft style flowers displayed on a simply designed dress where the embroidery is center stage but still in symphony with the dress…ahhhhh some day!

  8. Connie says:

    A couple of thoughts on this issue. I have just completed a great online course run by Sharon Boggon, a woman from Australia (internet is so great) on art journaling which deals with this design problem. is the URL for her blog. She is a fibre artist and the course is directed to people who work with fibre in an artistic way but I think the principles apply in general.

    Two burning questions I had for her were 1. What do you do when you have too many ideas?and 2. What do you do when you don’t have any ideas at all?

    The answer to the first question was to simplify and refine. In your case Kathleen, your first bag idea (with the 3 colours and the cutouts) could be developed but at a higher price point than the model you have come up with. The blue bag you have generated is lovely but maybe you would also like to develop something midway between this and the more complicated bag (which you haven’t developed yet but should). These are all leather so they are in the same ball park. Do the blue bag in different colours. Like you’ve said, “not all designs will work”, so you have to run them throught the gamut as described in your book.

    Put the velvet/rivet bag in your design journal for another day. It seems to me that this is a different ball game altogether. Which brings me to the answer to the second question and the purpose of the journal. It’s a place to keep ideas so you don’t have to keep them all in your head. I’ve gone around my house collecting up and sticking scraps of paper with design “thoughts” I’ve had over the years and put them in this one journal. It has been a great experience. The ideas start to bounce off one another in combinations I would never have thought of. Voila, new ideas.

    The other nice thing about the journal is that you don’t have to come up with a finalized idea in your head every time you think, which is very stressful. Collecting design “thoughts” and half baked ideas allows lots of room for play with no commitment necessary. The course provided lots of exercises for stretching one’s design capabilities and Sharon also said that some designs will work and some won’t. I have found though that ideas that don’t work in one medium, sometimes work very well in another.

  9. Barb Taylorr says:

    I am sure that many people can be just as creative working without limits as they can working with constraints. It just uses your brain in different ways. Probably some people work better in one situation than the other, but certainly not everyone is the same. I know you don’t sketch, but the best way I can describe this is with the media I started in:

    I know I can be just as happy & confident working with one pencil as I can with a whole art supply store at my disposal.

    If I were trying to design a saleable product in an efficient amount of time, I would stick with the media I had the most experience in & aim it at the customer I knew best. With no constraints and time limits, I’d experiment and play, letting the learning process comingle with design process and enjoy every minute of it. The latter situation would be a longer process, and a different use of creativity, but many designers relish that opportunity. I suspect it is the bussiness woman in you that is stymied by that because it is certainly not an efficient way to work.

    No one will ever convince me that too much knowledge is a bad thing. Life is just one long creative adventure and I, for one, love adding things to my tool box!

  10. Donna S says:

    How exciting to meet and talk with John Marshall and Connie Crawford.
    When I moved to NM I knew my life would take a new form. I just didn’t know what form. So I brought EVERYTHING with me. Now I am realizing that I need to unload more and more. Several years ago I heard Marcy Tilton talk about the need to purge ones life of “stuff” in order to see the way to new avenues. I also remember someone from my past who always bought less fabric than needed in order to force the creative process. I grew up with the aspect of frugality but somehow slipped into the acquiring mode. Recently my granddaughter was out for sewing lessons and I taught her many tricks that didn’t require some fancy, expensive piece of equipment. I surprised myself even. Last winter when a pipe broke in the attic causing causing two ceiling to collapse was another wake up call to unload the stuff. I figure I have enough knowledge to last the rest of my life time so this topic is one more nudge for me to keep on downsizing and purging.

  11. Elaine Good says:

    “And it gets to a point where you start thinking the only thing you can do with that knowledge (since actually *making* things becomes so difficult) is to teach it to other people.”

    I think people teach because it is exciting to work along side other people and their constraints and situations, and that stimulates your own creativity. I’m not convinced it’s because we can no longer make things ourselves…

  12. celeste says:

    I think when people have lots of knowledge they should teach to pass on that knowledge, and have that urge to teach. Not becuase they have issues designing. I think if one has the desire to teach then one will want to teach, and if one has the desire to design, they will design (you of course can do both). And overtime the desire might change.

    And, have to many choices can be a very bad thing. Sometimes its good to thorw it all on the one project, and then take away, or come back and redesign it. incoprating some ideals and leaving others for another project. Some of my best projects have come from trying another one, and then veering off into the new one – which turned out to be so much better.

    I also think that clearing out ones space is also a good thing. It is something that I took a long time to learn and sometimes fall back into. But every few months we go thorugh the house and find things that we no longer need, or will never use. Many things that I can pass on to someone else. This is now someting I am teaching my daughter, she jsut had her third birthday, and so every birthday and christmas we will go through her toys, and see what she no longer plays with, what needs to be fixed,a nd what she has outgrown. Those that don’t go to her little brother, then get passed on to other kids (wether a freind or donation, or to charity) .

    i have also been shopping in my own stash lately for fabrics and stuff. The last several months of projects I have used supplies I have already had on hand (only needing to purchase about 10% of those projects). And it has been a great feeling lately to use up what I already have (and already spent all that money on). And then a few months I will proablly go thorugh my stuff again, and weed out what I will problaly never use.
    There is always someone soemwhere that can use something you have that just sits around collecting dust.
    besides clutter just isn’t good, and can hampen the creative process. Which now makes me want to go clear out my closet and reorganize it. sigh!

  13. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    If I had all the time, materials, and skills…other than producing the lines I want to produce to sell, I’d make myself really great clothes that fit perfectly with perfect design details. Not overloaded, but with details and fun and elegant stuff, like how a lot of the stuff from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and first half of the ’60s have nice things that you hardly see on clothes anymore, even the high end stuff. I like to be well turned out. :-) And colorful. And related, I’d have my furniture and linens the same way.

  14. Teijo says:

    I have a friend who is a traditional dyer and weaver, and prefers to be called an artisan rather than an artist. She makes tsumugi cloth for kimonos, and wears traditional clothes both as a part of her job and because she likes them. We recently discussed the constraints the kimono places on its wearer, and how these are in part responsible for the grace seen in tea ceremonies, traditional dances and general demeanour here in Japan.

    I concur with her opinion. Arm movements are shaped by the care one takes to protect the sleeves. One always uses both hands at the table when reaching out. The narrow hem makes it imperative to remain aware of one’s centre of balance when kneeling or rising up from the floor. It also forces one to take daintier steps.

    It is interesting that once these mannerisms are assumed, they will persist even when the constraints are removed. After a while one will e.g. tend to support a phantom sleeve even when wearing Western clothes. This tends to look quaintly demure and charming, but does not make one a bit less agile at the dinner table.

  15. Charles says:

    Elaine, you misunderstood what I said. I wasn’t saying all people who teach do it because they can’t make things themselves anymore. (Obviously that’s not the case.) I meant that when people get to the point Kathleen’s describing where they’re so “rich” it starts hindering their productivity, the natural instinct would be to look for other ways to use that knowledge and excitement – like teaching. When teaching, you can get your ideas and techniques “out there” and let other people make the decisions. It would feel much more “worthwhile” (and less frustrating) than sitting around for hours trying to decide exactly how to sew a seam or which of an infinite number of shades of blue to use for the millionth time. >.< Obivously I can only speak for myself, but it seems like Kathleen and John Marshall are both perfect examples of this (and he even said so himself ^-^ ).

  16. Trish says:

    Given the “no restraints” agenda, I would have time to hand-paint my silks again. Then I would use them to create gorgeous fashion doll clothes. Humans bore me, LOL, since they live in the “real world”.

    However, since I spend my current life teaching, I stick to humans with their many fit and sizing problems.

    Oh, by the way, we got a eight foot wide color plotter so we can print our own fabrics at the Fashion Technology program of El Paso Community College!!!!!

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