Creativity Thrives Best When Constrained
“Art consists in limitation,” as the English writer G. K. Chesterton remarked. Constraints are the sine qua non of creativity.
One of the great ironies of creative thinking is that it seems to benefit from constraints. At first blush, inventive thinking may seem to require a great degree of freedom and a lack of restrictions, but the reality of the creative process is that it is frequently entwined with many challenging constraints and intractable requirements. In the right light, demanding constraints can truly be blessings in disguise as the French poet Paul Valery observed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”
Constraints can shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints stimulate creativity because they not only invigorate inventive thinking but also reduce the complexity of the problem at hand. That is to say, constraints can make a problem more controllable, and possibly even more appealing.
Constraints and Challenge Can Actually Be Assets to the Creative Process
When you explore inventions that are creative, you’ll discover that the creators often exploited some core constraints that had characterized their domain in the past. Here are six examples of creativity that exploited a constraint to great advantage.
- In 1986, British Airways ran a “Go for it, America!” marketing campaign to give away 5,200 free seats—all seats on its scheduled flights between USA and UK on June 10, 1986. In response, the upstart Virgin Atlantic ran its own newspaper advertisements that declared, “It has always been Virgin’s policy to encourage you to fly to London for as little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways.” And in smaller type, the ad read, “As for the rest of the year, we look forward to seeing you aboard Virgin Atlantic. For the best service possible. At the lowest possible fare.” The British Airways giveaway generated a lot of publicity, but most of the news coverage also mentioned Virgin’s unexpected, witty response.
- In October 1984, during the second presidential debate with challenger Walter Mondale, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun questioned President Ronald Reagan about his age: “You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?” Reagan famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Tyrwhitt responded, “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over.” Mondale lost and Reagan got elected for his second term as President. [See YouTube clip of this debate.]
- An determined young woman I knew was embarking on a career as a new architect. She had set her sights on a job with a prominent architectural firm, but her professors and career councilors urged her to gain experience at a smaller employer first, as no prestigious firm would take on an inexperienced, new graduate. Undeterred, the young woman applied to the firm she had set her sights for. When asked about her experience, she declared slickly, “I have no experience at all. You see, I want to learn this business at a top quality firm. Employ me and mentor me to suit your design practices. This way, I’ll not have to unlearn any of the second-rate skills I’d have learned in another place.” She got the job.
- When YouTube launched in 2005, many of its upstart competitors examined each uploaded video for copyright infringement. However, unlike its competitors, YouTube calculatedly let users upload any content and waited for copyright owners to complain before taking down noncompliant videos. By choosing to put their business model at risk, YouTube rapidly grew in content and viewers. Its early rivals faded out, and YouTube got acquired by Google and went on to became the world’s leading video-sharing platform.
- Legend has it that one day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy. Picasso had just relocated to Paris and was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome.
- When American sculptor Janet Echelman’s art supplies never arrived to South India on a Fulbright scholarship trip, Echelman altered her plans and started working with bronze casts inspired by the local materials and culture of Mahabalipuram, fishing village famous for sculpture. However, she soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While examining fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began speculating if nets could be a new approach to sculpture. However, the delicate surfaces of the fishnets revealed every ripple of wind. Echelman hoisted the fishnets onto poles and created sturdy volumetric forms without heavy, solid materials. Echelman’s building-sized constructed net art structures are now featured in many cities around the world. [See Janet Echelman’s TED talk.]
In each situation, the inventor reframed elements of his/her world that he/she couldn’t control.
When faced with an element of the situation that they cannot ignore or overcome, instead of tackling those problems head-on, creative folks tend to leverage their constraints in a creative way and reframe them into an exceptionally powerful problem-solving technique.
Idea for Impact: Constraints often stimulate creativity rather than suppress it.
The heart of many a problem lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, instead of asking, “how can I minimize this liability?” explore “how can I make the most of it?”