Constraints can breed creativity

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” – T.S. Eliot

Creativity and constraint are, at first glance, opposites, however there is a lot of truth in the fact that the tighter the brief – the more constrained you are, the more creative we can be.

One of the best examples of this is the photosharing service Instagram. For those that are not familiar with it, it’s one of those internet phenomenons where it’s easy to say “so what” because it’s simply a mobile app that has a bunch of filters and tools that you can apply to photos that you take with your mobile. That’s it (btw. facebook bought Instagram for a reported $500m earlier this year).

Here’s an example. On the left is a photo from my iphone, (my Son’s shirt, not mine!) and the same photo through the Instagram app.


It still isn’t the best photo in the World, but that’s not the point, the point is that although there would have been an infinite number of ways of improving the photo that I took with my iphone, I have neither the patience, talent or tools, so for me restricting the choice from infinite to 16 filters offers me the opportunity improve the photo immeasurably. (if you are interested, here’s a link to some truly amazing Instagram photos)

We can apply this to ideation. If the challenge is too broad it can actually inhibit creativity. The best challenges (a challenge being a call to action) give boundaries, purpose and a framework.

An example I often use in ideation workshops compares a challenge to;

a) create a new ready-meal (ie. the World’s your oyster) OR

b) create a new meal that that offers the consumer the convenience of a ready-meal, BUT differentiates itself from the other choices on the shelf by being fresh and devoid of preservatives and additives. All of a sudden the World of opportunities has narrowed significantly, but there is a really clear objective to work with