Stimulating Creativity With Constraints and Limits

While thinking “outside the box” is often used as a synonym for creativity, thinking “inside the box” with limitations of time, money and other resources often helps the mind to focus and respond with innovative solutions to problems. Composer Stephen Sondheim once said:

“If you ask me to write a song about the ocean, I’m stumped. But if you tell me to write a ballad about a woman in a red dress falling off her stool at three in the morning, I’m inspired.”

Here are two examples of how you can allow your creativity to soar by setting limits:

The Three Unities for A Good Tragedy

In an interview published on “Heads up! on Organizational Innovation”, creativity guru Roger von Oech explains that constraints force the innovator to think and look more deeply for opportunities. As an example, he explains that he was watching a Roman Polanski’s 1962 film titled “Knife in the Water”. One of the DVD’s special features had an interview with Polanski and his screenwriter in which they both stated that they forced themselves to stick with Aristotle’s “three unities for a good tragedy”:

o All action takes places within 24 hours;

o All action occurs in the same place; and

o There is a limited number of characters

This made them think more deeply about plot and character rather than taking cinematic shortcuts. That is, these three limits helped them create a much better film than they would have put together had they not set any limits.

The Houdini Solution

Ernie Schenck is an advertising and creative director, as well as the author of the book “The Houdini Solution”. He argues that the best way to come up with great ideas is not to think outside of the box, but instead to think within the box. He quotes psychologist and creativity expert Rollo May as follows:

“Creativity requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings and against that which limits them.”

Schenck argues that you don’t need to wait for “the muse” to appear or for your life circumstances to change; instead, work with the circumstances in which you currently find yourself and use any existing parameters or limitations as a vehicle to give your creativity direction. He adds that by the time you finish reading “The Houdini Solution” you’ll understand the following:

“The biggest secret of truly productive creative people is that they embrace obstacles, they don’t run from them. In their mind, every setback is an opportunity, every limitation is a chance. Where others see a wall, they see a doorway.”

One of the examples used by Schenck to illustrate his point is that of Jack White, a guitarist and songwriter and the leader of the Grammy Award-winning rock band, White Stripes. These are some of Jack White’s self-imposed restrictions:

* No computers.

* No digital recording technology.

* No bass guitars.

* No studio equipment invented after 1968.

* No clothes that aren’t red, white or black.

This forced creative captivity nurtures innovation and results in music that is more centered on talent rather than on technology.


How many of us are waiting for something to happen or for some obstacle to be removed before embarking on our creative endeavors? Start using any limitations in your life as a way to mold your creativity, instead of using them as excuses for not getting started. In fact, in order to be more creative, start coming up with constraints and limitations that can help give shape to your creativity.

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