Skip to content
5 min read

Embrace Constraints to Fuel Creativity

You pull a fresh sheet of paper towards you. The field of white is untouched, promising. You’ve been given free rein. Nothing stands in the way of your creative genius. You are unlimited – but where to begin?

Something curious starts to happen: the longer you stare at the page, the more the ideas slip away, until your mind is as blissfully blank as the paper in front of you. What happened?

Creativity Benefits from Constraints

We’ve all experienced the terror of a blank page (whether literal or metaphorical). A blank page gives you the freedom to do anything… and therein lies the problem. When you are unconstrained, it’s hard to figure out where to start, hard to evaluate your progress along the way, and even harder to know when you’re done.

So how can we avoid the horror scenario above? How can we maximize creativity within our teams to get the best outcomes in a short amount of time?

The answer lies in creative constraints.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, creativity flourishes under constraints. At ConvergentIS, we know that your business can’t afford to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike or get bogged down in the status quo. That’s why we always use the Design Sprint methodology to kick off the design phase of all our projects. It’s rife with rules and restrictions – from timed exercises to daily milestones. While that may seem daunting, it’s a great recipe for innovation.

Constraints Reveal the Path Forward

At the outset of a creative endeavour, constraints are a framework on which to base your ideas – something to work with. When the constraints are clearly defined, they can be framed as a motivating challenge for the team to rally around and focus their efforts. A puzzle with missing pieces is more inspiring than a routine task or an abstract problem.

As you progress into the challenge, constraints are there to evaluate your ideas against and force you to push farther. Creativity is hard work. Without constraints, we humans tend to take the uncreative path of least resistance. We’ll settle for the first idea, rather than the best, if there’s nothing preventing it.

Constraints – even artificially imposed ones – compel you to think, prioritize, re-examine assumptions, and act resourcefully in ways you would not otherwise. If your first idea doesn’t meet the requirements, you’re forced to iterate, creating more imaginative alternatives.

The right set of constraints will also provide a natural endpoint. When a solution is reached within the given constraints, the challenge is complete. No need to spend time wondering what is “good enough.”

Finding the Right Mix

Constraints come in three flavours. Input constraints include limits on the time, money, materials, or labour put into a project. Process constraints are when a particular methodology must be followed, like Agile (or the Design Sprint!). Output constraints are specifications for the final product, such as maximum load times or supported hardware.

A note of caution: add too many constraints and creative thinking is stifled. A creative challenge can easily turn into an exercise in frustration. Your best bet is to create a balanced mixture of all three types – for example, if there are strict input constraints, consider relaxing the output or process constraints to compensate. Our expert facilitators can help you strike the right balance, as well as properly frame the constraints.

Types of Constraints-1

Constraints in the Design Sprint

Leveraging the value of creative constraints is baked into the way we approach design thinking. Some input and output constraints are inherent in the process. Some need to be discovered and fine-tuned through the process, on a project-by-project basis. Let’s look at a few examples.

Process

The process of the Design Sprint itself is a constraint. We use it in all our design engagements because it provides a highly structured – yet flexible – framework. The steps are widely applicable to any type of problem:

  1. Aligning – understand the challenges and problems, pick a point of focus
  2. Solutioning – find inspiration, brainstorm solutions
  3. Decision-Making – share and remix ideas, choose the most promising solution to test
  4. Prototyping – create a quick, surface-level prototype
  5. Testing – test the prototype with end users, get their feedback

This format, along with its proven techniques for de-mystifying and promoting creativity, make it a powerful tool.

Input

In a Design Sprint, every exercise is time-boxed. This forces us to work efficiently, avoid side discussions, and focus on the problem at hand. Otherwise, we find that work expands to fill the available time. We look for progress, not perfection – especially in the early stages.

We also put restrictions on the number of people in a workshop: no more than 10, which should include business leads, project managers, subject matter experts, technical experts, designers, and end users. This is because larger groups slow progress down with little added benefit. A small, diverse group is much more efficient.

Output

When you participate in a Design Sprint, you’ll notice that we put in a lot of effort at the beginning to define the problem. We start by interviewing subject matter experts or end users about their current process and pain points, as well as what they are looking for in a solution. These solution requirements are the output constraints for the project. And as outsiders to your company, we question everything – even what is considered common knowledge – to determine which constraints are valid and which are imagined.

Once we have a feel for the constraints, we frame them into a compelling story – the Long Term Goal. It’s the north star for the project, the motivating challenge. It helps us know what to pursue and what to ignore during the innovation process. Only then, once we’re armed with background information and clear guidelines, do we start ideating.

Another example of an output constraint is sticky notes. Most ideas in the Design Sprint must be encapsulated in the space of a sticky note. Why? Anything can sound good if you’re allowed to ramble on long enough. We’re hard-wired to favour long, complicated explanations over simple ones. When you're forced to write on sticky notes with a large marker (or a character limit), you have to be creative in encapsulating a persuasive idea into a small space. It has to make sense and sell itself.

In conclusion

Fewer limitations do not necessarily produce more or better ideas.

Luckily, anyone can be creative with the right framework, and our facilitated Design Sprints will set you up for success. We take the time to explore the constraints and frame a problem worth solving. These, along with the rules of the process itself, act as guardrails to keep the project moving in the right direction in a timely manner. By following the step-by-step process with us, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your own innovative results.

Creativity is not so much about thinking outside the box, but rather finding the right box to think in.

We marry the art & the science of creativity.