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How can constraints enhance creativity?

By Jayanthi Moorthy

Above image: Artwork made using parts of the coconut tree as a paint brush

In the current world where there is so much unpredictability due to resource scarcity, and other forms of pandemics, we need to build ourselves to be creative and innovative to survive.

One of the ways to be creative is to work around constraints. Remember the time when you managed to pull off something with the limited time and resources you had? Didn’t you find a way to work around these constraints? Didn’t you take risks and swim through ambiguity to resolve it?

As an artist and digital designer I have always been faced with constraints that have only driven me to be more creative and innovative. To give you an example, as a practicing professional artist I am always constrained with space (due to the high studio rentals in New York City). At one point when I didn’t have a studio space and an art exhibit to work towards, I started making digital installations which later became my signature style. I could visualize and work on these installations from anywhere with my computer. Another such example is when I was working on a project where I had to design emoji icons for a chat engine. Icon design or pixel art uses very tiny digital spaces (around 16 x 16 to 36 x 36 pixels). For this project I had to be creative in this constrained space. the project also helped me unlock my potential working with squares and grids which eventually became my obsession.

From the above personal experiences and more, I have always looked at constraints in a positive light. Constraints linger around every profession from banking, finance to design and entertainment. Constraints come in the form of money, time, resources or manpower. They force us to be innovative by dedicating our mental energies in finding new ways to do old things. As defined by the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, “Innovation happens when one finds new ways of combining existing ideas, financial instruments, markets and production methods."

Constraints teach us to repurpose

Take for example how people have found new uses for discarded tires. They can be used as a swing in a playground or used as planters in a garden.

Constraints teach us to accept rather than resist

Resistance comes when we fear to take risks, when we are troubled with ambiguity and when we are unable to think of alternatives—these are all emotions and skills a creative mind can supersede. For example COVID-19 constrained us to space. Initially we all resisted the constraints the pandemic brought upon us. Those who accepted its reality made best use of the constraints by either getting closer to their family or learning something new or connecting with old friends. Those who resisted the constrained reality kept complaining and didn’t really find fun ways to enjoy the lockdown.

Constraints are also reasons why we have a personal style

We are what we are because of the way we have worked around our limitations. These limitations have been either financial, cultural, mental or physical. For example as an artist I work with ephemeral materials like sand and rice flour. I grew up in South East Asia where culturally drawings were made on the floor with rice flour. My chosen artistic medium constrained me from working on a canvas and instead used the floor as a canvas. This helped me develop a unique personal creative style. Also think about the various choices you make in your life ranging from choosing clothes to making boardroom decisions. They are all informed by a personal style which you have developed over the years due to various constraints in your life. Over time these personal styles become an obsession that further constrain us!

Constraints make us confident decision makers

We are all familiar with how making decisions over too many choices can leave us disappointed and dissatisfied. By choosing a particular thing/path we are always thinking about a lost opportunity but when we are constrained with choices we make quick, satisfied decisions. For example an ice cream truck with 6 flavors sometimes satiates us better than a freezer in a supermarket which has 30 flavors to choose from. This is also why we find the happy index of people in poorer countries higher than those in richer countries. In the former the attitude is “less is more” and in the latter the attitude is “more is more.”

As an art educator, when I organize art workshops in places like India, I show how constraints can work to ones advantage. For example, in one of the workshops I had participants use various parts of a coconut tree to create paintings instead of using common brushes. This resulted in participants coming up with unique ‘brush’ strokes and artistic expressions which I had never seen before! I do the opposite when I organize workshops in the US. I create a framework of constraints with time, material and ideas so that young and old creatives can explore new creative directions. I do this over a span of 9 days where they have to work on one idea or one material (tool, paint, paper etc.). Many had reported creative breakthroughs through this process. These constraints made it less overwhelming for non-creatives to find their creative sparks.

Summing up, constraints create frameworks that push us to think creative by generating alternatives and restructuring existing patterns. They help us stay innovative by pushing us to look at old things in new ways. Next time you are constrained with anything at work or at home, stay positive!

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