Constraints, how they transform the process of creative thinking

How many ways can you reorganise these three words? — ‘and, so, on’

Take some time with the task before scrolling down.

…really take time

…a bit longer


The logical answer is six.

and, so, on | and, on, so | so, on, and | so, and, on | on, so, and | on, and, so.

But there are no rules established beyond ‘reorganise these words’, so…

Noon, sod, a | dan, soon | sad, noon | son, nod, a | don, son, a | nods, no, a | do, an, son | sad, on, no | no, sand, o!

The great thing here is that the problem never asked for logic. This is partly a perception problem that is well covered in a blog post by Michael Michalko. But this post is looking how we can elicit creativity out of constraints. By providing boundaries and limitations we can force ourselves to see more possibilities where we once thought there were few.

Then, who said they had to be sensible words? What about: nood, san | nono, asd | nand, oos | anodons | a, n, s, d, o, n, o.

Or what about graphically reorganised?

anD, sO, on

Ok, I know all the typographers out there will be cringing at that effort BUT once we start to explore what we perceive are boundaries they suddenly start to shift and morph into a new set of possibilities. We find depth in what we thought was a closed problem, using the elements in unusual and surprising ways.

Limiting choice is good for creative thinking.

This tends to go against what we would expect but there are countless examples of people being innovative with just a little. Prison breaks come to mind as good examples but by far the best recent one (and closest to my heart) is Team New Zealand (TNZ) thrashing Oracle USA to win the America’s Cup. TNZ was in an embarrassing predicament of losing a seven match advantage in 2013 at the last America’s Cup regatta and sponsors started leaving. Hence, their problem this time was they had a very limited budget compared to other teams that were being financed by some of the richest men in the world (Larry Ellison — Oracle). TNZ had to rethink how a boat could be designed and sailed. Traditionally the boats are operated by arm grinding mechanisms. The kiwi syndicate with limited funds looked at the system differently and turned them into pedal grinders, sat as cyclists and freed their arms to operate other aspects of the boat.

We thrive on a challenge and adversity.

On a recent trip to Warsaw, Poland I discovered the story of how rebuilding the inner city castle was accomplished after being decimated by the Nazis during World War II. The communist regime refused to help with planning, financing or reconstruction so the people of Warsaw contributed what little they had, spare coins when they had them, to the project. Without permission the locals donated their own time and spent ten years building, and decorating the structure. The constraints of the situation required another approach, something unorthodox which solved the problem in a unique (and amazing) way.

So what implications does this have for learning and teaching? Why would we want to impose constraints on students? It seems to be counter-intuitive to creative practice but the advantages of doing so are quickly apparent.

Students in my Dance class are given some electrical tape and asked to map out a shape on the floor no bigger than approximately one metre squared. Then in pairs they have to stay in that space and generate movement. The exploration starts with confusion and frustration, often expressing that they are limited by space and can do very little. But when they persist and just start trying to find one different movement after another they build a repertoire realising, that actually, a lot can be achieved — in fact they are only limited by their imagination. Then questions start being asked; Can I have just one body part in it and it still counts? Can I be outside but connected with someone else who is within the boundaries?


The boundaries start to shift and are looked at in various ways to find new possibilities and opportunities to develop. With perseverance, constraints change perspective.

With my senior theatre class we investigated the different roles that are in theatre (creator, director, designer and performer) only using a water bottle as a stimulus. The students found what they thought was a fairly bland object could be moved in different ways, be an inspiration for how they could move, improvise multiple scenes around it as a starting point, researched how it was made and who it was made for, make other objects from it, be the focus of the work or be a redundant prop and otherwise ignored. It was not even particularly difficult to generate these ideas. Once the students stayed with the object as their source, the possibilities became apparent and it could be used to experiment with in any of the given roles whether it be creating, directing, designing or performing.

How could constraints be used in other subject areas to facilitate creative thinking?

In Language Arts, the idea this blog post started with could be used in a poetry unit. Give students a limited amount of words/sentences and make them persevere with different outcomes. Even the presentation of poems through different graphical representations (like the “and, so, on” example above) opens up a whole new world.

In Mathematics get students to experiment with how many ways they can represent a whole number line or can find examples of it. It could be danced, made into a game, be stations on a metro-line, thermometer, etc.

In Social Studies create fictitious countries with limited natural resources and set students the task of how they are going to create income. What ways can they come up with to make a nation rich with only a little?

Constraints lay a framework for problem solving, thinking inside the box (which I have also touched on in this post). Humanity has a knack of being innovative without an endless supply of resources. It is a quality we should be teaching our youth and indeed, can be taught.

And if you want a 5 minute summary of creative constraints then this TED lesson might be of interest.

All Images by Nela

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