Here is a surprising truth: it is easier to be creative when you are working within constraints.
Think about it: how often have you sat down before a blank page or a blank canvas, or with all the components you could need for a creative project before you but no specific purpose, and struggled to produce something creative?
Then consider the alternative: how creative have you been when you had a purpose, a deadline looming, inadequate resources, a tight budget, or rules you had to follow?
Most creative people would be more comfortable, and create more freely, in situations where such constraints apply.
To test this premise, researchers studied creative output with and without constraints.
Rider University researcher Catrinel Haught-Tromp asked volunteers to create two-line rhyming greeting-card messages. As the constraint, half of the volunteers received particular words to include in the rhymes. The rest of the volunteers had no constraints except for the type of greeting card they were writing for.
Now compare the output.
When no word constraints were imposed, the volunteers came up with:
I sincerely apologize,
I am not telling lies.
I will write you a letter
To help you feel better.
In the constrained condition, where the participants were given specific words they had to include, for “I hope you feel better” greeting cards, the participants came up with:
Close your eyes and imagine the Florida sun;
That will make any problem seem like fun.
No matter what storms you may weather,
Just remember, bad days come and go like a feather.
The last two rhymes might not make it into published greeting cards, but I think you agree that they are more creative than the first two rhymes.
How to add constraints
Here is a real-life example of creativity enhanced by constraints: Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) was challenged to write a compelling children’s story using only the same 50 (or fewer) words. He came up with Green eggs and ham.
A different way to constrain creativity is to use a technique that has constraints built in. Haught-Tromp points out that brainstorming, perhaps the best-known technique for coming up with creative ideas, is more productive when rules are followed, in particular the four rules imposed by the originator of brainstorming, Alex Osborn. (See Big bad brainstorming.)
Creative ideas come easier when you are told to use ideas already on the table as inspiration for new ideas (as in brainstorming).
An accepted technique for coming up with original ideas is to change your perspective, to ask yourself how someone or something else would solve the problem. What if you were a child? How would someone with a disability design it? This is another way to constrain your creativity.
Constraints are also in place when the problem statement gives you the boundaries of the ideal solution. The problem statement might contain the words “before Friday,” “economically,” “using only rectangles and circles,” “enhance communication,” “using Facebook,” “for the elderly,” or “in the evening.” These are all ways in which a problem definition can constrain your mind to think more creatively when searching for solutions.
But why does this work?
Haught-Tromp and her colleagues believe that the constraint of using a randomly chosen word forces new associative paths for the brain to follow. New associations mean new pathways to follow in search of original ideas. New pathways mean old solutions will not be revisited.
Patricia Stokes explains that, free to do anything we want, most of us will do what has worked best before. Following a path, even one that has been successful before, is not creative.
In the 1800s, railways revolutionized travel, yet early railway passenger carriages were modelled on the transport mostly used during that time, i.e. stagecoaches. This design included placing the conductor outside the carriage, which meant the conductor was in danger of losing his life every time he had to move from carriage to carriage (Ward, Smith & Vaid). Lives were lost before the design was changed to a safer one.
Working from stereotypes and existing knowledge might lead to ineffective, partial, or unoriginal solutions. Asked to draw animals that might live on another planet and told to use their wildest imagination, college students tended to produce creatures similar to Earth animals (Ward, Smith & Vaid). Adding constraints, however, forced the students to think more practically and to take into account possible conditions on other planets (Ward & Kolomyts).
As Thomas Ward points out, although we think of constraints as blocking our path, constraints actually prevent us from taking the easy way out (Ward, Finke & Smith).
Haught-Tromp, C. (2017). The Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis: How constraints facilitate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 10–17. DOI: 10.1037/aca0000061.
Stokes, P. D. (2006). Creativity from constraints: The psychology of breakthrough. New York: Springer.
Ward, T. B., Finke, R. A., & Smith, S. M. (1995). Creativity and the mind: Discovering the genius within. New York and London: Plenum Press.
Ward, T. B., & Kolomyts, Y. (2010). Cognition and creativity. In The Cambridge handbook of creativity (pp. 93–112). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ward, T. B., Smith, S. M., & Vaid, J. (1997). Conceptual structures and processes in creative thought. In Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes (pp. 1–27). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.