Blue skies are deadly. Embrace constraints.

Many years ago I was the creative lead on one of my agency’s biggest client projects, but I was blocked. Even though he was generally viewed as a fairly useless type, I went to the Executive Creative Director hoping for guidance. I told him I was stuck, blocked, and didn’t know where to start. He gazed at me like a monk, then advised me to sit under a tree in Central Park, let my mind go, and just “imagine what can be.”

What an ass.

His advice wasn’t only facile, it was completely wrong. The worst thing you can do when facing an overwhelming creative challenge is let your thoughts zip around your brain like a Roomba hoping to stumble across a gem amidst the dust bunnies and crumbs. The best thing you can do is find constraints.

A simple experiment you can try right now: take out a sheet of blank paper and draw something interesting.

Does the challenge feel unfair? It is: I didn’t give you any constraints. Now try this: draw a rectangle to frame your drawing. Suddenly you have a frame, a constraint: Everything I do must go in this box right here, right now.

Maybe that helped. How about this? Draw with only diagonal lines. Use no more than 10 lines. And vary the weight of the lines. More constraints, each minimizing the paradox of choice, each creating a wall for the handball of your thoughts to bounce against.

I will rarely start any professional project before I create at least a simple written project brief. I outline some basic project tenets: Who am I designing for? What are they trying to accomplish? What are the technical limitations? What features do I know I need to include? What are best practices? Etc. Each paragraph a constraint. Each sentence narrowing the scope, each word helping to funnel my efforts into something meaningful.

Maybe a brief’s not your thing, but whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re supposed to start from scratch and make miracles happen. Find meaningful constraints, or create your own.