How constraints can inspire creative thinking
Adding limitations helps uncover new solutions
You’re brainstorming new projects at work or developing a plot line for your screenplay. But the ideas aren’t coming, and you feel stuck. The well-worn phrase, “Think outside the box,” torments you. What does it mean? Your intuition tells you that to get out of the “box” that confines your creativity, you need to free your mind and imagine anything is possible.
But when any and all options are available to you, it can lead to paralysis. It’s the tyranny of the blank page—too many choices can stop you from getting started. Or they can cause you to play it safe, leaning on ideas and techniques similar to what has worked before.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but when you’re trying to push your creativity, that’s when constraints become more important. Constraints provide focus by limiting your options. Whether they are a specific prompt to start from, a structure you need to work within, or rules for the creative process you need to follow, they provide the parameters for what’s fixed and what is free to explore. They define a safe space where you can exercise your creativity. And they force you to spend longer in a place you’d normally breeze right through, taking the time to mine the depths of what’s possible given the limitations.
Examples of when constraints inspire the imagination
We can find examples of how limiting options encourages inventiveness in the arts, culture, and media—across both high-brow and low-brow settings. Constraints show up in fields as wide-ranging as writing, visual design, food, and social media.
Poetry, for instance, has many forms that constrain the word choice. The sonnet structure asks for three four-line stanzas plus a final couplet. A haiku calls for five syllables, then seven syllables, then five syllables. A limerick expects five lines with a AABBA rhyming structure. Through the years, structures like these have provided a container for an endless number of ideas, feelings, and stories to be expressed.
The Canadian poet Christian Bök explores extreme constraints in his book Eunoia. He writes one chapter each for the letters A, E, I, O, and U, using…