Get the constraints – this project’s out-of-control!

September 15th, 2015



Over the summer a group of friends and I found ourselves passing San Jose in Northern California (having found the way quite easily) and realising that it was the location of the famous Winchester Mystery House we stopped to visit.

You don’t get more strange or spine-chilling a story than that of the Winchester House. I’d read about it some years before and been completely intrigued. We bought our tickets, hurried through the truly horrific shop and waited eagerly for the guide to reveal the mysteries within…

…At the time of the last Mr Winchester’s death in 1881, his $20,000,000 fortune and shares in the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. (producing a daily income of $1,000) were inherited, in their entirety, by his widow, a diminutive, small-town Connecticut woman still in mourning for the loss of their only child, fifteen years previously. Most probably suffering from post-natal depression multiplied by grief times two, a desperately unhappy Mrs Winchester turned to a medium for help. This psychic convinced her that the spirits of all the people ever killed by Winchester rifles had taken her husband and child and that she would be next unless she could appease them by moving far away and building a house where they could never settle. So, with a heavy dusting of homesickness to magnify her desperation, Mrs Winchester moved to the other side of the country where she bought an eight-roomed farmhouse in what is now the edge of San Jose and commenced expansion in a ceaseless building programme that went on seven days a week for 38 years until she died in 1922.

The result? A sprawling and out-of-control mess of hundreds of rooms (160 in total according to an only recently confirmed count) many windowless, some with more doors in than there are out, a few with no doors at all, stairways leading back to where you began or to nowhere, windows opening onto brick walls and doors leading to sheer drops.

About half-way through our tour of these small, dark and crazy rooms I realised I was feeling quite unwell and reaching a rare exterior terrace I hoped an actual view out might help. I was wrong, looking down onto the bodged-up riot of roof(s) below I felt worse and I understood that it wasn’t freedom and space I needed it was constraints. Constraints are what create problems in a project and without them there are no limits on the purpose and so no need for a solution finding process – or as it’s known in my business – the design process. Nothing about Mrs Winchester’s house had been designed. Yes, when she decided to add another room she spent many hours making drawings specifying its elements and the decoration of the interior, but that wasn’t design, that was mere colouring in.

Poor Mrs Winchester! If only she hadn’t had such an infinite budget. If only she’d had a deadline. If only her audience hadn’t been malevolent spirits of the netherworld, at best unknowable, at worst unreal. Then I wouldn’t have been experiencing this hellish and dizzying dissolution of the world as I knew it.

Now, I am a fanatical advocate of being taken out of one’s comfort zone, it is one of the few things that can prevent the build-up of mental flab and I try to do it as often as is wise. But this ugly, brown antithesis was too much. I considered giving up, sitting down and weeping until someone came and took me to hospital. In the end I did the only thing a self-respecting designer could do, I regained control, not of the house, but of my mind. I took myself to a happy place where constraints were rigid and problems thrived and multiplied – or as it’s known in my business – reality.



  1. Really enjoyed this blog. I was with you in that hellish house. However, I am left rather uneasy, as I am not convinced that my reality is different enough from that house at the moment. Maybe I should relook at some of the constraints I have and realise that they are keeping the situation under control in a good way? I love a blog that shifts my perspective on things.

    by: Ann on 17th September 2015 at 3:17 pm


    • Ann, really pleased you got so much from reading this post. Your comment brings new depth here thank you. I don’t know the details of your Winchester House reality but mapping out the constraints might really help you understand where movement is possible and then growth and change will follow. It might also be helpful to list your purpose(s) so that decisions don’t loose their focus. You could also tell me to shut up!

      by: shaell on 18th September 2015 at 11:59 am


  2. Good ideas. I’m inspired to map out my constraints immediately – the first constraint being lack of time to map out my constraints. However, if I make time to list my purpose(s), I think I will find growth and change pretty high up the list, so perhaps my time is best spent listing those purposes to inspire me to map those constraints. I will report back. By the way, am I being surreptitiously designed here??

    by: Ann on 18th September 2015 at 5:59 pm


    • I can see it’s helping already Ann! Good luck with your current reality, I’m 100% sure it will have changed by the time we next catch up. I look forward to the progress reports (if you have time to make any).

      by: shaell on 21st September 2015 at 10:41 am


  3. THANKS! umm, sounds like my “gifting closet/drawers”. An excellent reminder that many problems/stresses are good. Glad to report you helped deliver me to the land of mostly good problems… in a well designed new office and business (I could only have done on a strict budget!). Fingers crosses this will last a long while. I truly hope you can stop by for a madmen style drink (previous blog) one of these years. We’re in Chelsea, the nyc one.

    by: Beth on 19th September 2015 at 12:51 pm


    • Hey Beth – I am deeply impressed that you even have a gifting closet! Really pleased you have wrestled your reality into shape and that I was able to help you along the way, you deserve some good times now. Perhaps there’s a blog post in what happened when you and I started to map out your creative brief and why we stopped? A New York trip might very well be on the cards – I’d better do some more front crawl to get my drinking arm in shape.

      by: shaell on 21st September 2015 at 10:58 am


  4. I definitely enjoyed reading your blog. I was walking through the tour of the house as well! It’s a good thing to take a different perspective on things, just hope I won’t start taking more risk than I would do normally…

    by: Hadi on 20th September 2015 at 10:36 pm


    • Risk is a risky business Hadi! The thing about going out of your comfort zone is that it can work either way – it can really challenge your ‘safe thinking’ and bring you new perspectives or it can throw everything into relief so that thoughts or beliefs you already had become reinforced. The unnerving part is that we don’t know which of these two ways it will go or what thoughts and beliefs it will do it to. Thrilling!

      by: shaell on 21st September 2015 at 11:08 am


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