Creation Via Constraint

By Renee Wilson, our Chief Client Officer at MSLGROUP, and also the PR jury president at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2014. 

Today, common sense might say that having larger budgets, bigger resources, and increased time, will enable us to improve our creative excellence.  However, I suggest that creative breakthroughs are more often a byproduct of constraining these factors.

There is this romantic notion that an amazingly powerful idea can simply happen, without boundaries or rules… Paul McCartney tells the story that one morning he woke up with the melody to the world’s most recorded song, “Yesterday,” in his head – he didn’t have the lyrics figured out, so he hummed the tune to the words “scrambled egg.”  To which John Lennon added at a later point, “yesterday.” 

When recalling a big creative moment, the story will often be oversimplified when actually there were many constraints that were overcome.   In this case, Lennon & McCartney were working on a Beatles album, they were under pressure from the record company to deliver more three-minute hits and they were on a tight deadline. Too much freedom can be creatively paralyzing, constraint actually can be liberating, as it was in this case.

This theory that constraints enable creativity, probably will be challenged by many. The majority may feel the climate of creativity can be crushed by setting restrictions and limitations. No one wants to be told by a manager or a client that they “can’t focus on a particular area as the company/brand team doesn’t like XYZ,” or “don’t focus on this as we’re not supporting that area of development,” or “don’t consider putting resource here as our budgets won’t allow that” etc.  Isn’t it tougher, they may argue, to work within all of these pronounced constraints?  After all, that might be the reason why we are not coming up with the proverbial ‘big idea,’ right?

Actually, that’s probably not right. Studies and history show that the best ideas are, more often than not, born out of constraints. Limitations can provide opportunity and inspiration for courage. 

Take for example, the great fashion designer Coco Chanel and her creation the Little Black Dress.  The popularity of the Little Black Dress can be attributed to the limitations of the era at which it was introduced.  The 1930s brought in the Great Depression during which women desired affordable fashion as fine clothing but the means to make clothes such as this were not as possible.  Chanel said, “Thanks to me they (non-wealthy) can walk around like millionaires.”  The dress was fashionable, yet comfortable and practical because it was stripped of all excess. This classic fashion icon was created through fiscal constraint. 

Constraints give us a starting point to work with—a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, or a client to please. The world is filled with amazing possibilities derived from limited resources.  Consider the fact that every color in nature comes from just red, yellow and blue.  Every pop song, symphony and jingle starts with just twelve notes.  In classic French cooking, Chef Larousse taught us that the mirepoix is the basis for hundreds of sauces, soups, stews and stocks and it’s made up of three simple vegetables:  celery, carrots, and onions.  Constraints?  Sure, but they’re a starting point for seemingly endless creativity and possibility.

Embrace Your Constraints 

Here are some simple tips to help you.

1. Two Pizza Teams

Take a cue from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, who coined the “two pizza teams” rule: if the number of people in a brainstorming team can’t be fed with two pizzas, the team is too big.  Adding more people is one of the most common productivity traps that you can fall into.

2. Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity.

Get your client brief, that is, what you need to do, down to a headline.  The more simplistic you can make your ‘ask,’ the more laser-like your focus will be and your creative ideation should flourish.

3. Set time constraints

Pressurize the thinking within a time goal.  Short bursts of time constrained activity with fresh stimulus can often yield better results than hours mulling over the problem in a windowless meeting room.

4. Find your own personal way to unlock your individual creativity

Find your creative muse, who gets your creative sparks flying?  For big ideas, personalize the constraints of the creative process.  Give yourself the clarity and freedom of the tight brief and disciplined process.

This post is a part of our People’s Insights report The Future of Creativity, in which experts from MSLGROUP and some from Publicis Groupe identify 15 drivers for engaging creatively in 2015.

The Future of Creativity – People’s Insights by MSLGROUP

People's Lab

People's Lab

People’s Lab is MSLGROUP’s proprietary crowdsourcing platform & approach that helps organizations tap into people’s insight for innovation & change.

7 Responses to “Creation Via Constraint”

  1. @narendranag

    Constraints give us a starting point: a problem to solve, challenge to overcome, client to please – @reneew

  2. Pascal Beucler (@pbeucler)

    Constraints give us a starting point: a problem to solve, challenge to overcome, client to please – @reneew

  3. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Creativity Via Constraint – @MSL_GROUP’s @reneew on #FutureofCreativity

  4. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Constraints give us a starting point: a problem to solve, challenge to overcome, client to please – @reneew

  5. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity. @reneew on #FutureofCreativity

  6. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Set time constraints – Pressurize the thinking within a time goal. @reneew on #FutureofCreativity

  7. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Find your own personal way to unlock your individual creativity. @reneew on #FutureofCreativity


Leave a Reply