Creativity is Best Served in a Box

I’ll get back to virality soon, but for now….

Most of us in the design industry are familiar with the concept that creativity doesn’t usually spring from a blank slate. In most situations, design problems are best solved when they have some initial parameters, rules, or constraints (see this article by Jessica Stillman in Inc. for a nice summary of the value of the box). The constraints on the design process provide a framework to try out possible solutions. Constraints, or rules, necessarily narrow the options available to the designer. This process results in more creative responses than if the designer is provided with weak constraints or no constraints at all. Psychologists have conducted experiments over the years to reinforce this premise. Many leading designers and design firms believe in this and practice it on a daily basis.

Although the concept of applying constraints is well known, choosing effective constraints is a bit more murky and personal. Different people employ different methods to varying degrees of success. One of my favorite constraints is technology.  Quite simply, I like to start my design process by asking “What can I do with existing technology?” (In a week or two, I’ll be posting a piece about how technological constraints shaped, and eventually killed, a social-mobile project dreamed up by my friend Matt Mihaly and I). Constraints don’t need to be complicated. They simply need to be.

Now, of course, setting too many constraints can actually suffocate creative solutions. Consider the interaction of a child playing with an action figure as opposed to playing with a giant box. The box provides more opportunities for creative imagination because the box has less detail, or a lower number of constraints. A design team should have something to work with. That something, however, should be as simple as possible to allow the most number of functions to emerge in the design process. It becomes necessary to be able to decipher key limitations at hand in order to provide a design team with the best possible atmosphere for innovation, imagination, and creativity.
When working in the digital space, on games and apps, setting effective constraints becomes even more essential. Whole new worlds are available to build, each with different physics or different societies. Anything one can imagine can be designed within the game space. To some degree, this freedom is exciting! Possibilities are truly infinite. But it can also be overwhelming. A designer can easily become stuck in an avalanche of choices and …..winding up with that same blank slate despite much time and effort.

Instead, give each member of a production team just a few constraints. This gives them a jumping off point for improvisation, allowing them to unlock their creative potential.

creativity in a box nomic studios gaming game start-up consulting

For more on boxes, constraints and creativity see:
 On Creativity and Play. Tim Brown TED Talk

Get Back in the Box by Dan and Chip Heath

One thought on “Creativity is Best Served in a Box

  1. Improvisation in dance improves with a starting structure, a beat, a form to jump off from. Controlled abandon, to paraphrase the Sufis.

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