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How limits can boost your creativity

Constraints can feel very... limiting. But experts believe they can actually be helpful for creativity - up to a point.

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Red and blue streaks of paint form an abstract painting on a white surface

Constraints in creativity

Dr Volker Patent explores the idea that constraints and limitations are actually necessary ingredients to creativity.

There has been considerable discussion of what classes as creative. Csikszentmihalyi (1996) defined creativity as something that "happens when someone does something new that is useful, generative, or influential". This implies novelty, which in the context is judged to be surprising, aesthetically, functionally, authentic and involves an act of production the making of something.

A common misconception about creativity is that it is something that only a freewheeling, naturally talented genius creator can do. However, exceptional creators are hardly ever creative alone or in isolation. High-performing creativity is as much about skill as it is about motivation, support and opportunity, if not more so. Rather than being dependent on unfettered freedom, limitations and constraints are necessary ingredients for creative work.

What are constraints in creativity?

A blindfolded woman against black

Photo by Kirill Balobanov on Unsplash

Creativity constraints are explicit or tacit factors governing what the creative agents must, should, can, and cannot do; and what the creative output must, should, can, and cannot be.

The term constraint originates from the Latin verb 'constringere ' which means binding, inhibiting, confining, controlling, compressing and making smaller. The definition of constraint is not particularly clear but always implies some form of restriction or limitation. Constraints can be intrinsic. As an example, uncooked dry spaghetti is usually fragile, limiting what you can build with it. Constraints may be imposed by external factors such as standards and regulations. Finally, constraints may be self-imposed as a matter of choice.

One should not assume that a constraint is always something that only applies to an individual's creative thinking. It may apply to a group (for example a constraint placed on teamwork by time, number of team members, money, and organisational aspects), or the dynamics of a process (for example, leadership).

As Onarheim and Biskjær (2013) state:

How much constraint is optimal?

Figure 1 Yerkes Dodson u-shaped curve describing the relationship between arousal and performance

So how much constraint is necessary? It depends on the problem and the constraint.

When thinking about constraints and their effect on creativity, they seem to follow the Yerkes Dodson Law of performance. The relationship between physiological arousal (e.g. sleep, wakefulness,) follows an inverted U-shape. Performance is a function of arousal levels, such that low levels of arousal (e.g. lack of interest, and attention) produce weak performance, and very high arousal (e.g. anxiety, too much adrenaline) produce similarly weak performance. There is an optimal level of arousal for performance. Finding that sweet spot is essential for optimising performance (see Figure 1)

Yerkes Dodson u-shaped curve b) - creative constraint

Figure 2 Relationship between level of constraint and creativity.

In creativity, too much constraint can make it difficult to be creative and too little constraint might end up overwhelming the creative process with choices. Like the Yerkes Dodson relationship between arousal and performance, there is a sweet spot for the constraints that facilitate and enhance creative work. 

Paint by numbers of JFK

Another way to consider constraints is to consider them structurally and how they contribute to the solution to the problem structure of what is being created. An example can be given with an example from Art.

Painting by numbers is a pastime people enjoy by colouring in shapes on a pre-printed frame by adding colours to the shape corresponding to a numbered colour. Both the frame and the colour codes are constraints which prevent any kind of creativity emerging when painting by numbers. The only way to achieve the intended effect is to follow the rules. Painting by numbers is an example of a well-structured problem that follows a system of rules: e.g.

  1. If the number is 1 use paint number 1
  2. if the number is 2 use paint number 2
  3. if the number is 3…..

Two cubist paintings by Juan Gris

Figure 4: Two cubist paintings by Juan Gris

The only way one might be creative here is by breaking the rules and reversing the numbers (e.g. all light colours become dark or all dark colours become light etc.). However, one probably would not rate any paint by numbers as exceptionally creative or original, even if they might appear aesthetically pleasing.

Cubist Art is an example of an ill-structured problem, where constraints impose a structure which creates something novel and unexpected. For instance, Stokes (2005) outlines how constraints operate in Cubism:

  1. if representing an object, fracture and depict it from several viewpoints
  2. if adding colour, limit the number of hues and range of values
  3. if representing the relationship between fractured objects, compose a pattern of their parts.

Most creative problems occur in a social and organisational context. Constraints can impact the input stage (e.g. money, materials, time), the process stage (e.g. activities used to generate and explore, techniques, leadership style, motivational and group dynamics) and the output stage (e.g. regulations, standards consideration for usability, the audience for the creative output).

In this sense, different constraints combine in the overall process. Their combined effect depends on the stage at which a constraint is applied, and then how it interacts with others, within the creative process. For example, if there is not enough money available, a project may struggle to get started; if a leader has a particularly authoritarian style, a team may be holding back ideas throughout creative work due to fear of being ridiculed or rejected.

One Way sign, fallen on street

10 Tips for applying constraints to your creativity

There are endless ways of applying constraints. Here I have put a few ideas together to give you a flavour of what is on offer in using constraints in your own creative endeavours.

  1. Use creativity enhancement tools such as oblique strategies, developed by Brian Eno Oblique, are a series of over 100 statements (in a physical or online form), and you apply the statement/instructions to your creative task. Many of the statements are instructions or invitations to consider different ways of doing things. For example: "only one element of each kind" or "work at a different speed". These cards are used in recording studios to help the artist (e.g. Talking heads, Coldplay) be more creative. Still, they can also be applied to other creative tasks. An online version can be found here 
  2. Try Osborne's idea checklist . Alternatively, use the SCAMPER technique 
  3. Set yourself some periods of an hour when you are working on your creative project. This can help with overwhelm, for example, when writing a book. Try confining yourself to write in 20-minute bursts. If you get stuck, change the rules of writing (e.g. write about your writing, or the feeling of being stuck)
  4. After applying some rules for a while, try breaking the same rules at least once
  5. Reduce the resources to their essential elements (e.g. in painting, only use primary colours or trichromatic palettes; in music, write a melody with only 3 or 4 notes)
  6. Treat a mistake or imperfection as a discovery to keep or learn from
  7. Make something new out of stuff that does not cost you any money (e.g. skips, bottle banks, Facebook give away, etc.)
  8. View your own physical limitations as assets. An example can be found in the artist Alison Lapper MBE  or Phil Hansen
  9. Learn from the constraints you have experienced in your creative work. What have they taught you?
  10. Consider where in your creative project, you need freedom and where constraints might be applicable. Often pragmatic considerations can act as effective constraints (e.g. how much time you have to produce something original, the materials you have at your disposal). Is there a need for other constraints to be applied?

Meet the OU expert

Dr Volker PatentLecturer in Psychology in The Open University's Faculty of Arts and Social Science VIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Volker PatentLecturer in Psychology in The Open University's Faculty of Arts and Social Science

Volker is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at The Open University, where he is Employability lead for Psychology. He obtained his PhD in 2015 from The Open University. He is a chartered Psychologist and has held faculty positions at Bedfordshire University and worked freelance as trainer, consultant and assessment specialist in industry.

His research interests focus on trust and personality, trust in selection/recruitment, mentoring and coaching, trust in individual and organisational decision-making and trust in politics. His research appears in the British Journal of Social Work, in Searle & Skinner (2011) Trust in Human Resource Management, and he has had conference papers accepted at FINT, EAWOP ENESER, and the International Congress on Assessment Center Methods.

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