The intelligent use of constraints

The intelligent use of constraints is the core of most creativity.

Wasn’t that a portentous opening sentence? You could hear me wearing a three-piece suit while I said it.

But it’s true. Give someone a notepad and ask them to make a drawing, and the very vast majority of people will go blank. But give ’em a notepad and ask for a drawing with a rocket sled in it, and suddenly people are making something.

(The people who never got stuck in the first place? They have their own internal methods for finding a starting point. Those too are all about constraints: using questions like “What are the objects in this room?” and “What was the last thing I got mad about?” to constrain their thinking.)

The Dude has a brilliant constraints game he plays with me when my brain will not shut up and let me sleep.

It’s like the “draw me an elephant” game, but better. He’ll say something like “There is a building, made of white limestone. It’s seventy-six stories high, and each floor is completely different. Start at the ground floor and see what’s in there.”

(My favourite floor was one that had wall-to-wall electric blue shag pile carpeting, and about a hundred Golden Retriever puppies. I still go back to visit it.)

Or from a few nights ago: “Think of each of your favourite historical figures, and give them a hairstyle from the 80s onward. Julius Caesar with a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle, that kinda thing.” That one was hilarious.

Constraining my mind to only think about one frivolous, not-worth-staying-awake-for topic works fast. I generally fall asleep before I think up a half-dozen examples. Sometimes I don’t even think of one. It’s super-powerful.

So that’s constraints. They are awesome when used intelligently.

What does the intelligent use of constraints look like?

I think it has a few vital features:

1. The constraint is only applied to a specific – and identified – set of circumstances.

2. The constraint is monitored, questioned, and sometimes temporarily removed to see if it is still useful – which means it still produces a valuable outcome. (It doesn’t have to be the outcome you started the process for. But it still has to be worth it.)

3. The constraint is never allowed to become sacred and unchangeable.

I wonder if it would be useful to have a Book of Constraints.

Where every time you make the decision to focus, filter or build a process, you write it down. And maybe you’d write down the logic of the decision, the core assumptions that lead to this process.

“We will only sell to customers who believe that great design is simple design.”
Because when we cater to clients with a different aesthetic to ours, we do a crap job and no-one wins. It’s better if we stick to our design strengths.

“Quiet time before 9am. No music, no chatting.”
Our most creative time happens early in the morning. That time is sacred and should be protected from interruptions.

“Publish an article every day but Sunday.”
My writing muscles have gotten a bit flabby and I need to rebuild them. Also I want to create new opportunities to attract new readers.

Because then it’d be easy to go back and look at your constraints and see if they are still relevant and whether they should still exist. If the circumstances change, the constraints should too.

My personal Book of Constraints would have purple fur and studs on it.

I seem to be setting up a lot of craft projects for myself lately. I like it.

One simple example of constraints: I have five hours of client-ey work to do today, and I didn’t have time to write the Rise and Shine newsletter AND the article. So I wrote the newsletter in a way where I can easily convert it into an article. That was very sane of me.

What are your constraints? Do you ever check up on them? Tell us in the comments!

photo by: Maegan

15 thoughts on “The intelligent use of constraints

  1. There’s a band called the Raveonettes, and their first album was entirely in the key of B Minor. The second album was entirely in B Major. I think something about that restraint made the songwriting better.

    You’ve hit on the biggest problem and anxiety I faced in getting a business started: Staring at that enormous, gaping void of time and opportunity and directions to take. These sound like good things but they’re also terrifying. Restraints and structure are major anxiety-killers. Hi, by the way!

    1. Thanks for that also brilliant example!

      There’s this discussion that tends to go on about identifying “natural” constraints, i.e. ones imposed by external circumstance, versus “artificial” constraints, which are really the ones I’m talking about.

      I think the conversation is a bit meaningless if you follow the rules for intelligent constraints. They’re a beautiful way to stop that vortex feeling.

      Hi back! Long time, etc.

  2. In my art – (giant scale projections and lighting for live events) – I find the constraints are almost always what cause me both the most frustration and at the same time drive me to make much more interesting things, and much more effective choices.

    I have to stop and really think, ok, how does this fit with both the physical constraints of what’s possibile in the architecture of the venue and the creative constraints which tend to be more like pencil lines I draw to give myself a framework – I stay within them until I have a good reason to make a different choice.

    For me, that’s really powerful.

  3. This solves so many problems for me… I have recently been struggling a lot with the need for systems vs. the need for flexibility. Constraints (with logic! that are changeable!) seems like such a perfect solution for finding the balance between the two.

  4. Nice framing of what I often think of as my “routine dilemma.” Part of me craves a routine like pie on Thanksgiving, but another part of me rebels against it for no good reason even when I WANT to do the planned activity. Good one! First time here, via @sarahemilyg:disqus ‘s tweet, so ta for that!

  5. I have a deck of cards called “Oblique Strategies” that’s full of constraints or starting points, kind of like what the Dude gives to you.

    I read a book a couple weeks ago called Doing More With Less about how business with constraints is more creative, more effective, and less wasteful. I don’t think he meant to, but the author make a great argument (to me) to devise constraints everywhere.

    As another example, Himself’s favorite band is Morphine, which has only a two-string bass and a baritone sax.

  6. When I compose, I usually begin with a simple motif. The rest of the music grows organically from it. I can transpose it, use it in retrograde, augment it, diminish it, superimpose it, but it must be some form of the motif. Then all this must fit into a form: sonata, binary, fugue, canon, etc. All constraints, that if used intelligently can make beautiful music with compositional integrity.

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