Cosby Sweaters and Constraints

I just reread a long and fascinating article about Bill Cosby’s sweaters…and it made me realize just how many choices and constraints can go into every design decision.cosby

First, there was the personal constraints:

They quickly realized that Cosby, and by extension Dr. Huxtable, couldn’t really be at ease wearing a suit around the house. “Bill basically likes to be comfortable, and in his real life, he’s in his sweats or his PJs,” says Lemire.

Avoiding straitlaced, white-collar attire also made Dr. Huxtable a more dynamic character. “I wanted to get away from the white coat all the time,” says Cosby, “or the blue blazer look, with the khaki pants and the penny loafers.” In contrast, Dr. Huxtable’s sweaters infused the show with a contagious, creative energy.

 

Then there were technical constraints:

The available camera technology meant that certain patterns and textures had to be carefully avoided. “The show was shot with multi-cameras,” says Lemire, “and back then they had a lot of problems with strobing, so it was very difficult to use certain patterns.” The stockinette stitch, a standard on most sweaters, alternates rows of knitted and purled stitches, which results in a subtle ribbing or stripe effect. The cameras used for “The Cosby Show” made even solid-colored stockinette sweaters vibrate or strobe when onscreen.

And then, more technical constraints:

…the show often relied on close-up shots of Cosby to capture such moments of improvised humor. However, tight shots like these caused problems when matching the scenes from two different takes, as a slight difference in costume positioning would become a glaring mistake.

“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says Lemire. “As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”

 

Really, it made me think of my favorite Eames video. Then again, many things do:

 

 

What’s important and awesome about this video is that Eames is awesome. And Funny. Many of his answers are simply “No” or “I wouldn’t” (insert laughing!)

Listen in, about three minutes, when he is asked about constraints.

Q: “Does the creation of Design admit constraint?”

A: “Design depends largely on constraints.”

Q: “What constraints?”

A: “The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Q: “Does Design obey laws?”

A: “Aren’t constraints enough?”

Constraints are what I would call Step Zero of Doing Design. Eames said that the mark of a designer is their willingness to accept constraints, and to design with them. The producers of the Cosby Show had a lot of constraints to deal with…but instead of working against them, they worked with them, and created a memorable impression on us all!

Daniel Stillman
daniel@thedesigngym.com
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