When one adds any sort of constraint to the creative process, one gets bogged down, right? Um, not necessarily. In fact, it could be just the opposite. From a variety of perspectives, constraints can open up dialogue and creative opportunities not originally thought or considered.
Portions of this blog post, originated by one, Lee Duncan, got me to thinking about just that. In the early stages of writing a short story, I jotted down some thoughts on my iPhone, knowing they would be automatically “copied” to another application (Notes) on my laptop so I could continue at some later date. When that later date came and I went to access them on my laptop, the additions I had made were nowhere to be found.
Oh, the horror!
I discovered a major constraint! Now, I had to rely on memory to reconstruct the few paragraphs I had previously written. I realized I couldn’t remember everything word for word so I revised my thinking a bit to write new dialogue based around what I did remember. All in all, it turned out okay (so far).
In his post, Duncan cites that designers, artists, writers, and creatives of all kinds are often told to “think outside the box” and let their imagination run wild. He asserts that creativity loves constraints. That limitations can actually enhance our creativity rather than hinder it? I tend to agree.
Both he and I agree that the idea that constraints can fuel creativity is not new. In fact, it has been embraced by some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, including Dr. Seuss, who famously wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” using only 50 different words. Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
Constraints force us to think differently. Or “newly” as in my case. They force us to look at a problem from a different angle and approach it in a new way. When we’re faced with limitations, we’re forced to be more resourceful, more innovative, and more creative.
Duncan cites an Instagram example: In the early days, the platform’s co-founders were faced with a constraint: they had to build a photo-sharing app for the iPhone using only the phone’s built-in camera. Rather than seeing this as a limitation, they embraced it and created a platform that revolutionized the way we share and consume visual content.
The Brain on Constraints
Research has shown that constraints can actually stimulate the brain and enhance our problem-solving abilities. When faced with a difficult problem, our brains tend to default to familiar solutions. But when we’re presented with constraints, we’re forced to explore new solutions and think outside the box.
One study conducted by the University of Amsterdam found that participants who were given a set of constraints to work within were more creative in their problem-solving than those who were given no constraints at all. Another study found that imposing a deadline on a creative project actually increased creativity, as it forced participants to make decisions and move forward with their work.
In my view, this wouldn’t necessarily increase creativity but it would increase the possibility of failure or at the very least, some new ideas. Creativity would then evolve.
Ideas and Constraints
Constraints can therefore help us generate better ideas. When we’re given a blank slate and no direction, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. You’re sort of blindly throwing the dart at the board and seeing where it lands. But when we’re given a set of constraints, we’re forced to work within certain parameters, which can actually help us come up with more focused and relevant ideas.
When a group of designers was tasked with creating a new line of office furniture, they were given a set of constraints to work within, including a specific budget and a requirement that the furniture be modular and easy to assemble. Rather than hindering their creativity, these constraints helped them generate a range of innovative ideas that met the client’s needs and exceeded their expectations.
Applying Constraints to Facilitation
Constraints can also be applied to facilitation, or the process of leading a group through a creative problem-solving process. By imposing constraints on the group, the facilitator can help guide them toward more creative solutions.
For example, a facilitator might ask a group to brainstorm ideas for a new product, but impose a constraint that the product must be made entirely from recycled materials. This constraint forces the group to think about sustainability and environmental impact, which can lead to more innovative ideas.
If no constraints were added, the group might generate hundreds of new ideas but would have to undergo a due diligence exercise to decide which ideas were better and then further decide how to proceed. That’s another exercise entirely but well worth the time invested.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, constraints can actually be a powerful tool for fueling creativity. They force us to think differently, stimulate our brains, help us generate better ideas, and can be applied to facilitation to guide groups toward more innovative solutions.
When constraints happen, and they will, gather your thoughts and let your imagination roam, exploring new opportunities and possibilities. I think you’ll find that paired together, creativity and constraints make for a viable coupling.
This blog post is based upon an article by Lee Duncan, an IBM Enterprise Design Thinking Leader.
Hopefully making a ruckus, one blog post at a time!
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