Constraints and creativity

Kenneth TruemanGeneral1 Comment

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“So you have been studying <foreign language> ?”
“Say something in <foreign language> then.”

This type of exchange is usually followed by a blank stare by the person who is studying the foreign language. Silence—dead air—followed at best by an “Umm”, then an awkward and unconvincing, “Bonjour!” or “¡Hola!”.

The same thing happens when you give a person a blank sheet of paper and ask them to write something. Or to draw something. The majority of people—those without a preferred doodle or saying always at hand—will stare at the blank page for what seems like an eternity. Minutes pass. Sweat forms on the brow. And still nothing.

“I hear you like to draw. Can you draw me something?”

Give that same person a blank piece of paper and a single instruction—for example, draw an animal—and you will be surprised how quickly the piece of paper will fill up. Depending upon the person, you may even have to ask them to put the pencil down; the level of detail, when provided with such a simple instruction, can be downright impressive.

What changed between the first scenario and the second one ? You provided a constraint. A constraint sounds like something negative, like a restraint or limit to one’s creativity. In fact, it is the opposite, a spur to creativity.

Now what if you specify that the drawing should be a cat? So far, so good, since most people know what a cat looks like and know how to draw one. 2 constraints in place—(1) an animal that is (2) a cat—and we are producing results.

So we add more constraints. The cat is wearing a hat—no—a fedora. “Ok”, the person says, “I can draw that”, though since no one wears fedoras anymore it took a moment to remember what one was.

And now the cat is wearing a suit. (“I need to process that first, since I am not used to seeing a cat in a suit”.) And now the cat should be carrying a box of fish. Again, more mental acrobatics.

Now is where it starts to get interesting. As we added the initial constraints, the creative juices started flowing. The addition of a constraint or two provided a gentle push to get the ball rolling, to get some creative momentum. As we add constraints beyond a certain point—a point that really depends on the participants, the context and the creative task to be accomplished—we start to see diminishing returns. The person who is asked to be creative is starting to spend more time on calculating the interplay and the impact of the different constraints than on being creative.

That person is also starting to wonder as well if there might not already be an expected answer, solution or result to the creative task that they are being asked to undertake—and that their response will ultimately be compared with. Once you start to increase the number of constraints and the mental ‘cost’ required to take them all into account, and you add the suspicion that the person doing the asking has something particular in mind, the average person will start to lock up, consciously or unconsciously. And you are largely back to square one with an empty sheet of paper or a bunch of scribbles that don’t represent anything.

It may be helpful to think of the interplay between constraints and creativity as a bell curve. Maximum creativity can be found in the middle.

If you plot creativity on the Y axis and constraints on the X axis, you would get something like this.

The number of constraints and how they shape the curve are specific to the nature of the creative challenge(s) to be answered and the person or persons who are asked to answer it/them. What is important to understand is that creative efforts can be improved by adding some—but not too many!—constraints.

Constraints in the context of marketing

Assuming you can answer the infamous question pairing of “So what? Who cares?” when trying to put words to the nature, the functionality or the value provided by a product or solution, constraints provide for an interesting exercise. In this case, the constraint is the word count.

If answering those 2 questions initially required 200 words, the next step is to reduce it to 100 words. Then to 50 words. Then 25 words. Then 10 words. Can you get it to 5 words?

Experience has shown that if you can get the nucleus of the idea down to 10 words or less, you can then expand on it the other way, back up to 25, 50, 100 words or more. Not only will that core idea still hold water, but it will likely be tighter than the original 100 or 200-word starting point.

by Kenneth Trueman

Kenneth Trueman, Principal ConsultantKenneth Trueman is an experienced product marketer and business strategist with almost 20 years of experience working with technology companies, ranging from early stage start-ups to established small and medium-sized businesses and organisations with thousands of employees.

Originally published May 26, 2014 on Medium ; minor corrections applied.