More constraints and creativity

Kenneth TruemanNon classifié(e)Leave a Comment

In a previous article, I discussed the interplay between constraints and creativity.

Constraints throughout history

I thought it would worthwhile following it up with some historical examples, ranging from ancient times to the very present.

Cuneiform tablets

Made out of clay, the cuneiform tablet has a limited amount of space to write. If you make a mistake, you can’t really erase it. If you have more to say, you need another tablet. And that takes time and money to produce. Here is an example of a cuneiform tablet dating from 1350–1330 BC, one of the Amarna letters.

Contraints - cuneiform tablet



Originating in the mid 17th century, Haiku is a Japanese form of short poetry featuring 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. Here is an example:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw


The shipping container

Originally developed in the 1950s by a shipping line owner and an engineer, it was standardised internationally in the late 1960s. In the period since, it has revolutionised international trade.

Shipping container

Caption: The lowly shipping container. Available in any colour you could probably desire, not that you likely even cared. Source:

Designed to sit on top of similar containers and interlock with them, the shipping container solved the problem of what do with pallets of goods that could not easily be stacked, were prone to breakage and theft, etc.

But the real innovation behind the shipping container was two-fold. The first was the promise that if “it” could fit in a shipping container—a constraint if there ever was one — it could be shipped easily. The second innovation that sprung up around the shipping container was how the means of packing, transporting, and storing shipments were affected by the shipping container. Containers could be stacked one on top of each other, meaning that more goods could be sent via the same ship, and ships grew in size, as did ports and locks, so that this extra volume of goods could be dealt with.

Constraints - Tank container

Caption: And it if could be made to look like a shipping container, in this case with corners and locking mechanisms where they were expected to be, it could be handed like a shipping container. Source:

They could be placed on tractor trailers and hauled behind a truck on an interstate highway. They could be stacked by twos, one on top of another, doubling the capacity of a train overnight. And a new term was born: intermodal.

Shipping containers could be taken from a shipper to the shipping company, and with the right paperwork and inspections, be sent on their away. The shipping container removed much of the drama around shipping goods across a country and around the world.

Google AdWords

A multi-billion dollar advertising business, Google AdWords is fuelled by constraints on the number and type of characters that can be put into a maximum of 4 lines.

Constraints - Google Adwords character limits


There are limits as well on what you can say in an ad. For example, you cannot mention the names of competitors or provide certain types of calls to action. The following ads were generated on November 17th, based on a search query for « budget hotel new york ».

Texts ads for a budget hotel in New York City


Launched in 2006, Twitter is another multi-billion dollar advertising business, laid on the basis of 140 characters of text at a time. This was the very first tweet ever.

The food truck

The food truck—The source of a thousand business plans and reality show hopes, the food truck is at base a blank canvas. Leveraging a standard form factor—the Grumman-Olson step-van is prized for its street cred—the food truck is ultimately about how much and what type of kitchen equipment, tools and food you can fit into a truck. The truck itself is the constraint and it is unmoving in that regard, though there are some accepted conventional means of expanding on it, such as fold-out steps, a counter, or an awning to protect against the bright sun or inclement weather. (Non-conventional means are more related to decoration such as fixtures and gimmicks.)

Constraints - Food truck

Aside from mentions on social media, the truck itself is often the only form of advertising, a billboard that alternates between rolling along and parking on city streets, providing another inspiration for creativity. And as each advertising campaign relies upon uniqueness and a concept, so each food truck must do as well, paying attention to imagery, colour schemes and text. There are four sides to a food truck, but room must be left for windows, doors, etc., thus reducing the creative canvas.

Belying the advantages of starting a business in a food truck—the lower upfront costs than with a fixed presence, the ability to move to where customers are at the drop of a hat—is the fashion truck, where one can browse, try on and purchase a range of fashions; it too relies on social media for awareness and demand generation, with Twitter as the principal medium.

Caption: Considered a pioneer in the Los Angeles food truck scene, Kogi BBQ announcing its locations for evening service on November 18th, 2014, via Twitter.

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