When we talk about the creative process, we think subconsciously of the divergent phase where ideas go in all different directions, freely and unlimited. We take for granted that as a company or organization to get to cutting edge ideas that lead to successful innovation, total freedom and unlimited means are the only way. These are suppositions that find their origin in artistic creativity or at least in how we think it works. We imagine artists as rebels who kick established values in the shins and only come to useful creation when all borders and limitations have fallen by the wayside. Thinking out of the box is an expression that is inseparably connected to creativity, because, above all, we want to wriggle ourselves out of that straightjacket of rules and agreements to become original and to reinvent the world, if need be. The sky is the limit, right?
The thought that constraints hamper our creativity is deeply rooted. It is the explanation we like to give when we don’t get to the wished-for results in solving a problem. ‘Yes, but I needed more means, or more time, or more knowledge, or more space….’ This explanation becomes an excuse really fast, an escape route not to engage in certain challenges, and resign ourselves. And that’s a pity and unjustified because several studies prove the opposite: creativity, in the form of original and valuable ideas, often springs up from limitations.
A great number of artists of much renown know all too well how paralyzing the idea of ‘the blank page’ is. Total freedom doesn’t inspire. That explains why they like to limit themselves. Think of the world of poetry with its different verse forms, like the haiku, the limerick, and the sonnet. The strict, established rules become a framework within which the poet has to deliver their message and will get inspired by it exactly because of that. The rules by which their work has to comply become a creative challenge this way. And that challenge is often needed to bring out to the max the creative potential of the artist. Take for instance one of the most well-known sculptures in the world: David by Michelangelo. Connoisseurs claim that the artist would have never made such a powerful and admirable work had he worked with soft clay, which is of course way more easy to handle. It is exactly because of the unmanageability and at the same time fragility of the marble as a working material that Michelangelo brought out the best in himself.
Total freedom doesn’t inspire. That explains why many renown artists like to limit themselves.
The famous American architect and furniture designer Charles Eames assumed that creativity is in large part the result of limitations. He even claimed that success or failure of a designer is dependent on the measure of ‘willingness and enthusiasm’ with which they like to work within given limitations.
In the world of music, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky writes “… my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action, and the more I surround myself with obstacles. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.” Stravinsky loved to play around with musical composition by using self-imposed constraints. In some works, he elected to use certain pitches only, while in others he limited the technical demands on the performer, and so on. Sometimes, those problems were even technological in nature: Stravinsky’s Serenade in A for Piano (1925) was composed with the particular limitations of a 78-rpm record in mind. To be able to fit it on a single side of the record, each of the four movements is around three minutes long.
As a graphic designer and, later on, creative director, I have often found how strongly limitations can fuel one’s creativity. These limitations most often stemmed from the client. Sometimes budgets were very small, yet the client wanted maximum impact of their communication campaign none the less. Recognizable? In such a case, as a designer, you look for alternatives and turn on your creative brain on maximum speed. No time for an expensive photo shoot? Then you just work with a few strong words and some beautiful typography. Or a super simple graphic. No budget for advertising? Then you design a campaign so creative it goes viral. The same holds for when time becomes a constraint. Deadline tomorrow? Then you throw all dead weight overboard and keep focused as much as possible. That was a very educational time, where I got to fully understand and embrace the expression ‘less is more’ above all. And like that, my definition of a good designer grew: someone who can achieve maximum impact employing minimum means.
No budget for advertising? Then you design a campaign so creative it goes viral.
Limitations liberate while on the other hand freedom limits. A lot of artists and creative professionals will agree with me on this paradox even though most people will think the opposite intuitively. But how is it that total freedom and lack of any structure or limitation result in paralysis? In many cases, this has to do with the stress of choice. In psychology, the phenomenon is known under the name ‘The tyranny of choice’. Studies show the more choices you have, the more difficult it becomes to decide as a result of the anticipation of regret that grows with every option. If we make a choice, how can we be sure this is the right one or the best one? In other words choosing becomes losing and that we want to prevent at all cost. So we prefer not making a choice and circumvent the very phenomenon of the blank page. This way, they can bring us ‘in the flow’, because often the first step in a creative process is the hardest.
But before we rush in, one more thing: not all limitations are liberating. An excess of limitations, for instance, can demotivate and therefore paralyze also. A repetition of the same limitation(s) won’t stimulate our creativity endlessly either. You can also give people too little time, budget or means and exclude any alternative solution that way right off the bat. Too much is too much, so often the trick is to find the right balance. And that is of course also dependent on the level at which someone can employ their creativity. People with a high dose of creativity can handle some initial limitations, while you limit such demands with people that are less creatively experienced.
That the idea of ‘liberating constraints’ has reached the corporate world is proven by CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer’s quote: ‘Creativity loves constraints.’ But she also adds carefully: ‘… but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.’ I couldn’t agree more because asserting that creative ideas only spring from constraints would be completely wrong. Again, balance is crucial here.