How Constraints Help Creativity

“I’m so excited to have you on board!” the principal said over the phone. I wish I felt as excited as he sounded.

I’d just accepted the first teaching job I’d ever applied for. I should’ve been thrilled. I should’ve been ecstatic. This was, after all, a dream job for me. I’d have the opportunity to teach art to every child in the school from Kindergarten through the eighth grade. I’d be solely responsible for designing the curriculum from the ground up. There was nothing to start with. But it was just now — after I’d accepted the position — that I realized that I should be terrified for all the same reasons I was excited.

Thankfully, I still had nearly the entire summer left to plan. But ironically enough, all that time proved to be a downfall, too. I’d start in one direction, experience some self-doubt, then start all over again because — well — I could. I had the time. But all this start and stop, start and stop stuff came at a profound cost: I wasted time, and the only thing that ever grew was my self-doubt.

Sometimes constraints can help us. They box in the boundless. They give us structure and rules to play by. No direction can be utterly overwhelming. We can be left spinning, not knowing where to go or what to do. Stuck there too long, our self-confidence becomes a casualty, too. Yep, that’s precisely where I was. And I was about to be responsible for teaching the visual arts to no less than about 600 students — in about a week. Oy.

I knew I had to do something. I had to plan something. And whatever it was, I’d have to stick to it. I was out of time. But looking back, I think the constraint of time — the pressure of the first day of school looming — led me to a creative breakthrough. The pressure pushed me to think differently because I had to.

How Constraints Help

Constraints provide structure to guide and direct our thinking.

You know exactly what I mean if you’ve ever stared at a blank page. Constraints give us a place to start, a point to begin. Often that can be the biggest hurdle of all: just getting the ball rolling. Constraints can be embraced as the gift that helps us get going.

Constraints create pressure that pushes us in positive ways.

Breaking free from the status quo and innovating requires thinking in new ways. This isn’t an easy thing to do. But restrictions, rules, and constraints can help push our thinking in new directions so that we can think outside of the proverbial box. Nothing changes if nothing changes — including our thinking and creativity. The pressure of constraints can help push us out of our comfort zone when we’d otherwise be stuck in the same old thought patterns. In short, constraints combat complacency.

Constraints increase creative grit and resiliency.

Constraints force us to work effectively within limitations. Where there is a “no,” we are challenged to create a “yes” and make it work. This process can help us learn how to think in new ways, forcing us to look beyond the obvious and easy to what is possible and promising. Just like resistance training builds muscle strength in the body, working within constraints forces us to flex, stretch, and grow our creative thinking powers, too.

Exactly one week before the first day of school, I grabbed a blank sheet of paper and drew a nondescript scribble in the middle of it. Then, I had hundreds of copies made. Every student in every grade would receive the same line on the same piece of white paper along with the same set of instructions: Transform the line into art. Make it a masterpiece while incorporating the line in some way.

That insanely simple art activity ended up being the lesson I’m most proud of to this day, and it proved to be both challenging and freeing for the students, too. As you can imagine, the lack of specific instructions baffled and confused many children. They weren’t used to having such creative freedom. Instead, they wanted to see finished examples. They openly questioned how they could complete the project correctly if they first didn’t see what “right” was supposed to look like. But that’s what made this activity exceptional. It was an opportunity to discover where their own creativity could take them. It was a license and invitation to explore an open-ended activity where they were solely in charge, had to make choices, and commit to their own way of completing the artwork.

Yet that scribble on the otherwise blank page provided just enough constraint, just enough direction, to provide a starting point. That scribble became a seed for each student’s creativity to blossom before their very eyes.

Each student in the school — all 600 hundred of them, ranging in age from five to fourteen — turned that underwhelming line into beautiful things. They created intricate geometric designs. Some drew organic floral arrangements. Yet others transformed the simple squiggle into ships, ducks, dogs, and rabbits. There were black-and-white designs, monochromatic palettes, and designs that used every color available. But each finished design was unique, all 600 of them — even though each had started as the same line.

I spent hours taping the artwork up to the walls throughout the school. I wanted the students — and the other staff members — to see firsthand all the completed designs. I loved hearing the gasps and comments about how each child approached the activity differently. It created great anticipation for the art activities to follow and a strong feeling of community across all grade levels. It also gave every student much more confidence in their own abilities to take a constraint and make something beautiful with it. As adults, we use constraints as a creative challenge and a cue to think differently, too.