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Pro Innovation Tip: Creativity loves constraints!

I want to let you in on a little secret: creativity loves constraints. It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? When we think of creativity, we imagine free-thinking and living outside the norms. We don't envision boundaries or guidelines. But I'm telling you, that if you have a problem to solve and are in need of something thinking, try slapping a few constraints on it and see what emerges. 

A little bit confused? Let me explain what I mean. 

Imagine someone gives you a blank piece of paper and tells you to draw something original. No guidelines, no time limit, no expectations. You stare at the paper and it stares right back at you. Nothing comes to mind.

Now imagine that before starting the activity the person sets the scene, gives you a problem to solve, hands you a paper with a few lines and shapes on it, and puts 45 seconds on the clock. This time around there are a few constraints. There’s a problem to solve, you’re not starting from square one, and there’s no time to second guess your ideas. It’s within these boundaries that ideas start to flow out of you as you quickly work to beat the timer.

This is what I mean when I say that creativity loves constraints. It’s not about putting boundaries on your creativity and limiting what is possible. Rather, the parameters give you guidance and permission to go crazy. It’s all about creating space for creativity to flourish and thrive.

I know it still may seem a little illogical so let me share a few examples of how constraints nurture creativity: 

  • Mario is one of the most recognizable characters in the world and was created totally out of constraints. A very limited number of pixels (16 pixels tall by 12 pixels wide) were available when Nintendo needed a principle avatar for their new game. Nintendo artists had to get creative with these massive constraints. So they put gloves on his hands and a hat on his head in order to reduce the number of details because more details required more pixels. Within these boundaries, Mario was born.

  • People rarely know the challenge Dr. Suess accepted from his editor, a challenge that mandated him to write a book with 50 words or less. Today, we’ve all heard of “Green Eggs and Ham.” 50 words exactly. Good work, Mr. Geisel!

  • Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway took up the bet that he couldn’t craft a story in six words. The story goes that he paused for a moment and created this sad tale, “For Sale: Baby shoes never worn.” 


What about you? Can you think of a time your creativity flourished when given a few constraints? How were you able to embrace the constraint and totally amaze yourself and the team by discovering something new and exciting?



Five Ways to Use Constraints to Your Creative Advantage 

It’s a paradox but constraints catapult us to better ideas, solutions, and living. So how can you add a few constraints to help creativity thrive?

  1. Step Into Constraints - Lean into the boundaries that you, or an external force, may be requiring.

  2. Set an End Goal - A defined goal you’re working towards helps set the parameters for what needs to be created.

  3. Ideate to the Max - Come up with lots of wild ideas, no idea is too small or too big.

  4. Work Fast - Setting a time limit is a powerful way to activate creativity. When you have to work fast, there’s no time to second guess yourself.

  5. Be Ready to Pivot and Adapt - Take your favorite ideas and see how they can be tweaked.


Creative thinking is fundamental to the innovative process. Adding a few constraints to a problem is a powerful way to nurture creativity. We all get better with constraints. Great ideas don’t come out of big money and lots of resources. Check your history. Some of the best ideas ever born came from constraints coupled with big appetites.


Keep inspiring creativity! 

- Karen

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