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Creative Constraints

I was listening to a podcast which reminded me of a really interesting counterintuitive truth: we are more creative when we have constraints.

People think creativity will happen when “I make enough space in my life and have this perfect zen moment and can unleash my creativity.” But creativity seems to come better when we place constraints around it.

What sort of constraints?
1. Completely arbitrary random constraints: it seems these are the most powerful way to unleash pure creativity*
e.g.1. For a photographer: Today I can only photograph pictures with red in them. Suddenly you start noticing things all over the show that have red in them. Suddenly you start looking much more carefully, it becomes a fun objective.
E.g.2. For a writer: Describe the forest only with words beginning with T and O… give it a try and see how much more interesting your descriptions have to be with this sort of constraint in place
2. Structure constraints: e.g. This project has to consist of exactly six photographs. The pictures have to be circular. Once you define a structure you start thinking about what will fit that structure and again looking for something different.
3. Spacial constraints: e.g.1. Take 200 unique photographs of this small space eg. Your kitchen. The first 50’are unique and cliche, the next 50 you start running out of normal ideas and after 100 the magic starts, you start seeing differently. E.g.2. I am only going to write while on the top desk of a bus travelling around London…
3. Time constraints: I have got to get this project done by July. By next week Friday. By Tomorrow. When that deadline is immovable we all come up with the goods…

So give it a try next time you are trying to do something a little more creatively…. constrain yourself!

* the idea of random arbitrary constraints reminds me a little of the approach Derren Brown recommends for memorising something using absurd imagery: if you create an absurd mental image of something you are trying to remember, you remember it much more easily. For example I was once trying to remember the names of a family I had met recently (as I am always forgetting names), so I pictured them as a giant dad of a man in a caveman’s loincloth (it had an association with his name. It I won’t give it away here!), standing on a map of the world on Sweden (that’s whether they were from) surrounded by his family in various other absurd poses and dress. To this day I can still rebuild the entire mental picture and I remember their names and where they are from. The more absurd we create a mental image the better our brain remembers it. I wonder whether it’s a similar thing going on with the creative constraints. It’s forcing our brain out of the everyday “auto pilot” and into a place where it has to do some work which then unleashes the creativity.

Here is the podcast, from The Psych Files by Michael Britt episode 269: How to get people to be creative