Imagine I hand you a sheet of paper and a set of colour pencils. I ask you do something creative. It can be anything you want and there is no time limit. What would you create? The idea of having complete freedom and agency in creativity sounds enchanting, but as soon as the reality kicks in you become paralysed. You second-guess yourself. You’re not exactly sure how to get started, or what you want to create. In the end, you might abandon the idea altogether and have nothing to show.
Now imagine I hand you a sheet of paper and a red pencil. I ask you to draw as many red objects as you can think of. You are not allowed to lift your hand from the paper once you start drawing and you have 5 minutes to complete the task. I guarantee a much more interesting result than the first round. In fact, you’ll think for a second or two and get going faster because of the time limit. You have no choice but the red pencil in your hand, so you won’t waste time selecting a medium. Your choice of content is limited to red objects, so you won’t fiddle the time away thinking about what to draw. And finally, because you are not allowed to lift your hand from the paper you’ll end up with a web of red doodles that are all connected in some way. In short, you’ll have done something creative.
For the first activity there were very little constraints and a lot of freedom. For the second, quite a few constraints and limited freedom. My guess is that you would have been more excited to get started with the second activity. There would have been a sense of urgency, activity and a burst of energy. Constraint is a catalyst for creativity. When we limit our options the human mind gets creative, it has to, because that’s the way it evolved. With scarce resources the resourceful survive. They make plans, they find a way, they get creative. In the same way, when we constrain the boundaries in any given activity it helps focus our minds and energise our bodies.
Designers know this and if they don’t, they learn it the hard way. I gave my third year students a similar brief one day as part of their exam. Take a single sheet of A3 paper and show off your design skills. Do what you like, no limits whatsoever. It was a disaster. Out of the group of 20-odd students only 2 of them created something worthwhile. The rest were completely dumbfounded by the lack of constraint. Ironically, it was as if there was nothing to work with, ‘anything’ was as good as nothing.
In effect, every time a designer gets a brief, she gets a set of constraints. Without this, the work cannot be done. When we brainstorm ideas or do visual research, in essence, we are adding constraints. We explore a variety of approaches (divergence) and then we throw most out to focus on the ones we think would serve the brief best (convergence). The same happens during the design process: we decide on a sans serif font for the logo, we go for black and white images for the website, we constrain to create.
Next time you are inspired to get creative or you are facing a daunting task, try adding limits to your options. Experience for yourself how this activates your brain and fires up the neurons for creativity. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. So if you make it necessary to work within certain constraints, you’ll see first-hand just how inventive you can be.