This feature on the power of working within creative limits was written for the second issue of Kodachrome, a new magazine on art, film and analog culture published by Kodak. It’s put together by the team at Stranger Collective, who I’ve worked with on many projects before.
The magazine is distributed internationally; you can buy a copy from the Kodak online store.
The Power of Limits
Perhaps thinking outside the box isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…
It’s the moment every creative person dreads.
You’re embarking on a new project, and it’s time to get down to work. Before you, there’s a blank white screen and a blinking cursor – or maybe it’s a fresh roll of film, an empty canvas, or a brand new notebook. You can set off in any direction you choose. There are no parameters. Endless possibilities. You’re ready to start. And then – nothing comes.
Suddenly, you’re paralyzed. The parameters seem too broad. You can take any road, but you can’t decide which one leads in the right direction. There’s no way in. You’re stuck. Blocked. Devoid of ideas. And a question begins to rattle inside your head.
Where the hell do I start?
Creative block is nothing new – in fact, it’s probably as old as art itself. Everyone’s experienced it at some point, and everyone has a different way of dealing with it. Some people advocate just getting started. Write the first thing that comes into your head, even if it’s nonsense, make a mark on the paper, a squiggle, anything; the important thing is just to get something down. Other people suggest stepping away from the problem: go for a walk, read a book, watch a film, listen to some music, work on something different for a while, and hopefully, when you come back, your unconscious will have worked through the problem and furnished you with fresh ideas.
But there’s another school of thought gaining traction in creative circles – and that’s to set yourself limits.
Finding freedom within constraints
At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive. Surely, the more room you give yourself to work, the more creative you can be? The bigger the canvas, the more colorful the possibilities? But in fact, for many people, it turns out that sometimes, limits can be liberating – from the lighting conditions, budget constraints or shooting time per roll of film, to the letters of the alphabet.
“When I was about 18, I had a massive crisis of confidence,” recalls Ross Sutherland, a UK-based poet, performer and playwright. “I was just starting out, and I’d been doing really well. I’d been getting regular gigs around Liverpool, supported John Cooper Clarke, and my work was attracting quite a bit of interest. But then one day I was struck by the thought that there was nothing unique or original about what I was doing. And I just stopped writing.”
He pauses and takes a sip of tea, clearly not relishing the memory. “I didn’t write anything for weeks. I was completely stuck. And then a friend of mine, another writer called Nick Holloway, gave me a book about this group in 1960s France who called themselves Oulipo. Their idea was that in order to tap into your creativity, you should set yourself puzzles. So I tried it. And bang – I was off.”
Oulipo’s ‘littérature potentielle’ was about “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy”, to trigger new and unusual creative ideas. Ross’s initial Oulipo-inspired experiment was an exercise known as Univocalism, in which the writer is only allowed to use words that contain a single vowel. Though he initially struggled with the constraint, before long his brain seemed to rewire itself, and he was back working at full speed.
“I started seeing patterns everywhere: Canada, taramasalata, abracadabra. I couldn’t turn it off. But the interesting thing was that I stumbled across all these random ideas and conjunctions. It made me use words and lines in ways I never otherwise would have. Weirdly, the rule did a lot of the work for me. It helped me turn off the conscious part of my brain, and tap into the creative potential of my subconscious.”
It’s a process that stuck. Ross now uses rules and puzzles as a starting point for all his work – such as his play Party Trap, the dramatic equivalent of a palindrome, in which the first half’s dialog is repeated during the second half, but in reverse; or his hit show Standby for Tape Backup, in which he provided a poetic score for a videotape of mashed-up TV clips that he’d recorded as a kid at his granddad’s house in the 1980s.
To be honest, I think I’d be kind of lost without the rules now,” he admits. “They’re the spark which starts the fire.’’
Sutherland’s experience is familiar to Pat Stokes, adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University, whose ideas about creativity came from her time at art school and subsequent work in the advertising industry (pre-psychology, she was a copywriter and creative group head at several New York agencies).
“The layman’s ideas about artistic freedom are completely wrong,” she explains. “Free to do anything, we all do what worked best in the past. It’s very basic: behaviors with successful outcomes become stronger on a neural basis. It’s why most experts get ‘stuck’ in successful solutions.”
In her book Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough, Stokes explains how using a technique she calls ‘paired constraints’ can help an expert get unstuck. “The basic concept is to list all the elements of your current solution,” she explains. “Then you pick one element to exclude, and substitute it with a replacement idea. By itself, that simple act of substitution helps you to look at the problem in a new way. And if you’re lucky, it might suggest a whole series of other substitutions that collectively make it very, very new.”
Embracing enforced limits
For the artist Phil Hansen, creative limitations weren’t a conscious choice. While studying at art school, he developed an uncontrollable tremor in his hand that made it impossible to make the pointillist drawings in which he had previously specialized. Initially, he was despondent, believing his career as an artist was over. But following a visit to a neurologist who encouraged him to ‘embrace the shake’, he started working again.
“I began to make scribble pictures, which meant that the shake wouldn’t be a problem,” Hansen explains. “When I embraced my limitations, I rediscovered my creativity. I began to create with this mindset and it changed everything.”
Hansen now often uses constraints to inspire himself – from etching pictures on bananas to creating a portrait from stacked-up Starbucks cups. He’s even given a TED talk on the subject.
“I’m always setting myself new limitations,” he says, “and they always lead me in strange directions. My latest one is to make the biggest, most time-consuming artwork I can, and then ask the public online to decide whether it should be preserved or destroyed. Another thing I’m working on is to figure out how to make art with decaying leaves. It’s really hard – but the constraint is the thing that makes it interesting.”
Cheating the system
If there’s one art form that makes the case for the virtue of creative constraints, it’s architecture. In many ways, it’s a discipline that’s defined by limits – whether budgetary or aesthetic, technical or topographic.
“One of the main lessons you have to learn as an architect is how to remain creative within the limits you’re given,” explains Chris Romer-Lee, a partner at the innovative UK-based design practice, Studio Octopi. “You can come up with the most stunning concept, but it’s useless if it doesn’t work for both the design brief and within building consents. As an architect, you’re faced with so many things over which you have no control – whether it’s a tricky space or a restrictive planning condition. The key is to retain your vision through that process of compromise.”
As an example, he recalls a commission for Wallpaper*, in which the magazine asked young architect studios around the world to design a concept house. “When we asked for the brief, they replied there wasn’t one. We could design anything we liked, and we actually found that really hard. So we wrote our own: we imagined our house was for an avid ornithologist who needed a holiday home, so we came up with this fantastic tower, with lots of balconies and a brass pool, using tons of glass, surrounded by trees. It became a platform for us to express all these ideas which we would never have come up with if we hadn’t set ourselves that brief.”
But there’s a point when constraints begin to stifle rather than inspire. One of Romer-Lee’s current projects is to design an outdoor lido in the River Thames. It’s a project that’s not just technically challenging, but also logistically complicated, with approval needed at every stage by stakeholders from the local planning department to the Environment Agency and the Port of London Authority. “It’s just ludicrously complicated,” he says. “There are so many moving parts and so many people to consult, it’s a huge challenge to move forward just one step. But we believe in this idea, and in a way, the bigger the obstacles become, the more we’re determined to finish it!”
Occasionally, the trick isn’t conforming to the rules, it’s bending them. Poet Brian Bilston self-publishes all his work through social media (his wry, touching observations of everyday experiences have led to him being dubbed ‘the Poet Laureate of Twitter’). Many of his poems are written specifically for Twitter’s 140-character limit, but sometimes, he deliberately messes with its rules – by writing a poem spanning several tweets, for example, or snapping an image of a poem that he then posts on his timeline.
“Sometimes, Twitter’s character limit imposes a rigor on my writing that it might otherwise lack,” he explains. “No character can be superfluous. Many times I’ve shaved words off to get them to fit, and usually it results in a stronger poem. But I also like to cheat: I’m really interested in the visual side of social media, and I’ve experimented a lot with visual ideas, like creating poems out of Venn diagrams, or on scrabble boards, or embedded in Excel spreadsheets. It’s a wonder I’ve not been banned from Twitter, really!”
Facing the challenge
From poetic forms to artistic limitations, from architectural hurdles to Oulipo-inspired rules, there’s one thing that all these examples seem to have in common: challenge.
Imposing challenges on ourselves, it seems, sparks our innate creativity. Perhaps it’s related to our primordial fight or flight response: confronted with adversity, we have a choice about whether to confront the problem, or run away from it. And when we choose not to retreat, but to stand our ground, our minds are forced to think more creatively, to problem solve, to adapt, explore and innovate.
For the writer Raymond Queneau, a founder member of Oulipo, artists were “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”. It’s a sentiment echoed in the words of another Oulipo alumnus, the novelist George Perec, who penned a quote that could easily serve as the movement’s manifesto: “I set myself rules in order to be totally free.”
So next time a blank page stares back at you, your mind is overwhelmed by opportunity, or the frame simply feels too large to fill, perhaps it’s time to give yourself a constraint or two – a rule, a restriction, or a box to think inside.
After all, you never know quite where that limit might lead.
+ rosssutherland.co.uk – Sutherland’s podcast, Imaginary Advice, is available on Soundcloud. He’s currently working on a new BBC series for autumn 2017.
+ philinthecircle.com – Hansen’s latest work is a text art project involving crowdsourcing stories online: join up by texting Art to 31996.
+ brianbilston.com – Bilston’s first poetry collection, You Took the Last Bus Home, was published by Unbound in October 2016.
+ octopi.co.uk – find out more about Studio Octopi’s design for the Thames Lido and other projects.
+ kodak.com/go/kodakery – listen to Paulo Cherchi on the power of limits