How constraints can inspire creative thinking
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 words only with that single vowel and no others. On top of this extreme condition, he also imposes a few more: each chapter should exhaust 98% of the words possible in English, the words in a chapter should not be repeated (as much as is possible), and each section should include a few thematic passages: a description of a banquet, an account of a nautical voyage, and a discussion of language itself. Chapter I begins with this self-reflection on the constraints he has placed on himself:
“Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks — impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils.”
Eunoia took Bök seven years to create, and while it takes effort as a reader to settle into the writing, the book is often evocative and moving. It’s impressive because of his virtuosity with language, in spite of, or because of, the constraints he makes for himself.
Creative constraints are also a hallmark of the visual arts. For instance, they’re built into the foundation for how graphic design is often taught. Echoing ideas from the Bauhaus, an introduction to typography class might be structured around the same assignment every week: to design twelve variations of a book cover layout using a provided text. The first week, students may only use a single weight, style, and size of a typeface. Then each week, they are given one more variable to add to their designs. One week adds bold to the regular weight, another week, an additional font size. These constraints help the design student explore the options of one limited palette of possibilities before progressing onto another, such as adding another typeface, or moving from black and white to color.
How about creativity and food? In the world of fine dining, Danish chef René Redzepi founded his restaurant Noma, named the world’s best restaurant four times, by applying extreme constraints. He restricted the team to use only ingredients to the Nordic countries, often foraging and harvesting their own. And then what is a show like Food Network’s Chopped, but an exploration of cooking constraints? It’s a competition of three timed rounds with four mystery ingredients in each basket. You might face a similar constraint in your daily life: “I only have twenty minutes and haven’t stocked the fridge in weeks. How do I make the most delicious meal possible from a few leftovers and what’s in the pantry?”
Finally, digital social media is another place where you can witness how constraints lead to creative expression. They are baked into the formats of what and how you can express yourself, often defined by technical limitations. Twitter, for example, had an original 140 character limit, Instagram only allowed square images, and the now-defunct service Vine supported looping videos up to eight seconds in length. And who hasn’t been impressed by a coworker’s emoji or GIF game? Memes, emojis, animated GIFs, and other formats all represent well-defined, narrow spaces where people can express a spectrum of clever and unique ideas.
Constraints in drawing
When learning to draw, some of the suggestions for getting more comfortable with the drawing process involve unusual constraints. A student in a drawing class might be asked to practice drawing without lifting their pencil from the paper, with their eyes closed, with their non-dominant hand, or upside-down.
YDays is our site for drawing challenges with friends, teammates, or strangers. In YDays, constraints are built into the drawing tools themselves, and they’re not evident until you start drawing. Each day’s brush is a new set of constraints to discover and explore. One user described it as the perfect way to work on a growth mindset. You have to let go of your inner perfectionist, let the tool speak to you, and go where it leads you. YDays can be a way to be a way to practice breaking out of the mold of how you initially approach things, and instead use the constraints to push your creativity.
Consider this drawing tool. You start drawing and realize it’s a grid of triangles. You can change the color of a triangle to black, or red, and you can paint with that color by dragging the mouse (or your finger, if you’re on a touch screen):
One prompt instruction on YDays says, simply, to draw a bird with this tool. Even with such a constrained brush and well-defined prompt, it’s incredible to see how much range people on YDays are able to find with their drawings. Here’s a sampling of forty-five birds created in response to this prompt:
We’ve learned that people are able to find ways to work with the constraints to discover a “hidden” mode of expression. And people uncover a way to express their individual style. The drawing tool shown here allows you to make rectangles filled with a set number of diagonal lines:
Day Four of this challenge on YDays asked for participants to use this tool to draw a face. It was inspiring to see how people were able to use this tool to make a wide range of drawings. For instance, drawings in a light, graphic, cartoon-like style:
A more painterly style, using the hatch lines to convey light and dark:
Or, with a combination of small pixel-like shapes for definition, along with gradations of shading:
YDays was designed to limit what you can draw each day by providing you with a different brush from the library of over 30 tools. The limitations force you to explore a style of image making you likely wouldn’t have tried otherwise, encouraging you to exercise your creativity in a new way.
Using constraints to inspire more creativity in your life
Here are some strategies for using constraints to exercise “outside-the-box” thinking in your day-to-day:
- If you’re looking to get in the regular practice of being creative, consider joining a challenge with a group. This could be a small cohort of like-minded folks, such as friends who want to encourage each other to write or draw every day, sending prompts and constraints to each other and holding one another accountable. Or join an existing challenge in the world, like Inktober, Nanowrimo, or 36 Days of Type.
- Are you stuck and unhappy with something you’re creating? You can try applying Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to your creative problem. Use one of Eno’s prompts, like “Emphasize repetitions” or “Turn it upside down” to explore a new direction. Or call on a trusted friend to suggest one or more constraints for you to explore.
- If you or a group are brainstorming ideas, explore what kinds of constraints you can impose on the activity. You want to silence your inner critic and think broadly, but some parameters on the process can help unleash more divergent ideas. Set a timer, and ask everyone to write as many ideas as they can, with the clock ticking down. Employ the design sprint exercise Crazy 8s, where each participant adds ideas to a sheet of paper divided into eight boxes. Every thirty seconds, the timekeeper makes you move to the next box. Or, you can make a group keep going, not letting the brainstorm end until the white board has at least, say, 100 ideas, numbering them as you go.
- Try out YDays as a way to practice creative constraints daily, as an icebreaker with your accountability group, or a way to loosen you up for a brainstorming session.
Whether you’re an amateur screenwriter, aspiring musician, or manager leading a brainstorming session with your team, constraints can play an important part of the work you do, providing much-needed structure to the act of creating something new. With time, they can become a natural part of how you approach creativity and inspiration.