Design Constraints in Engineering: Definition & Example

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  • 0:03 What Are Design Constraints?
  • 1:14 Safety
  • 2:18 Cost
  • 2:49 Available Resources
  • 3:30 Environmental Impact
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll explore the many design constraints that affect engineering projects. We'll explain what design constraints are and why they are important, and then we'll look at examples of some common constraints.

What Are Design Constraints?

Let's say you're having a dinner party for your friends. You have a budget, of course, and don't want to spend more than forty dollars on all the groceries. Julie is a vegetarian and doesn't eat meat, so you need to keep meat off of the menu. Angel has an allergy to peanuts, so its important that no nuts or products with nuts come home from the grocery store. Jose has a gluten intolerance, so you want to make sure there are options available for him, too. Although this event is the start of a fun Friday night, it's also filled with constraints.

Design constraints are conditions that need to happen for a project to be successful. Design constraints help narrow choices when creating a project. In our example, at first any food in the entire world might be on your menu, but then you remember your budget and the choices get smaller. Design constraints can feel like a negative thing sometimes, but they help shape the project to fit the exact needs of the client. In this example, the result at the end of all your considerations will be a meal that suits you and all your guests.

Instead of building a menu, we're going to learn how design constraints affect engineering projects like creating cars, buildings, and other structures. Let's look at some common constraints on these types of projects.


A visit to San Francisco, California, wouldn't be complete without stepping onto the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic suspension bridges in the world. When we walk across a bridge, we assume that its perfectly safe, but engineers had to spend countless hours modifying the design to meet the safety aspects of design constraints.

The Bay Area of San Francisco is prone to high winds, which can shake and even break bridges that aren't built to withstand the wind force. Engineers creating the Golden Gate Bridge had to create cables for the bridge that would bend and twist with the wind, instead of being torn apart.

California is also prone to earthquakes, and engineers had to consider how to create a foundation that would persevere through some of the strongest shearing forces on Earth. Entire roads have been ripped in half by California earthquakes in the past.

Each design project will have different safety constraints depending on where it is and what it's used for. For example, buildings in tropical areas need to be able to withstand heavy flooding during the rainy season, whereas this wouldn't be a concern for a structure in a drier climate.


Like our dinner party, every project has a budget. Although it's clear that you can't go over a certain cost for the entire project, there are other considerations for cost as well. If you're designing a product to be sold to the public, you must consider how the design cost will be passed down to consumers.

For example, electric cars have numerous benefits, including cheaper fuel costs and decreased fossil fuel production. However, many electric cars remain too expensive for many Americans due to construction costs and the price of the battery packs needed to power them.

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Additional Activities

An Engineering Challenge

In this activity, students will be creating an engineering challenge for a friend or themselves using specific design constraints. Students should incorporate at least four constraints in their challenge. For example, students might create an assignment that asks students to create a bridge made out of popsicle sticks. They might include a budget of 200 sticks, a specific type of glue to be used, a minimum length of 1m, and a requirement to hold 50 pounds. This assignment is an engineering challenge and includes four different constraints.

Student Instructions

Now that you understand design constraints, you're going to create an engineering challenge for yourself or a friend. The goal here is to create specific constraints, then evaluate how effective they are in creating a quality product. For example, you might create a challenge of building a bridge out of popsicle sticks, a tower out of plastic cups, or a house out of toothpicks. Consider constraints like the budget, amount of materials, type of materials, and time allowed to complete the project. After you create your challenge, try it out or have a friend do it. Then, answer the questions below about how the constraints influenced the challenge.


  1. What constraints did you include in the challenge?
  2. How did the constraints influence the success or failure of the challenge?
  3. What other constraints could improve the success of the challenge?

Expected Results

Students should see that some constraints influence productivity and creativity, for example, a tight deadline or limited supplies. However, students may also observe that if there are too many constraints the project becomes too difficult or the product is compromised. Real life must accommodate these two limitations and incorporate constraints that help improve the final product.

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