Restrictions: A Creative Power Tool

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Recently Apple held their annual WWDC event and opened it with this stunningly simple animation:

It reminded me of one of the most important pieces of advice I learnt early on in my career: embrace your restrictions.

Have you ever had an open brief? One that you could solve by any means? To some this might sound a dream. Maybe you had an idea from a previous project that would work perfectly as the solution. On the other hand what if you were starting from nothing? I’m sure you can see where I am going with this. Restrictions imposed in the brief are important, as they can give your ideas a direction. More importantly they also serve as a mental exercise for you to work around and this is where I see them being most effective.

Self-Impose Restrictions to Get Focused

If you find yourself struggling to solidify or even just nail down an idea try imposing extra restrictions on the project. In the case of the Apple video they limited the visual content to two colours and 3 on-screen elements: text, lines and circles. By sticking to these restrictions they were able to create a piece of work that was consistent visually and beautifully echoed Apple’s product design sensibilities (which of course are now coming to their software).

As well as reminding me of a golden piece of advice, the execution of the video brought me back to an exercise I had to do when I was in my first year of Art School. Only now am I realising the important lesson it was trying to teach.

(If you went to art school or studied any foundation art or design programme then you may already be familiar with this exercise — however it’s always fun to revisit and it can serve as a nice creative warm-up for the day.)

The Exercise

Using only 9 dots of varying size, try to represent the four seasons as best as you can. Think about what the seasons mean, maybe there are already obvious representations you can use. Push yourself to experiment and see how many different solutions you can come up with for each season. By restricting yourself you will be forced to find creative ways to solve the problem.

The important thing to remember as you go along is that there are no right or wrong answers to these kinds of exercises. Much the same as when you are brainstorming ideas for you latest project. You must not let the fear of being wrong limit your creative potential. Let your mind play and have fun. John Cleese discovered this was a very important part of the creative process and I highly recommend you watch his talk on it here.

So next time you are struggling with a brief look over the restrictions again. Can you use these to push your creativity? Try applying your own to see where they take your ideas. They can be the perfect catalyst for when those creative woes hit.

Restrictions are just one of many techniques in a creative’s arsenal. Are there any you find you keep coming back to and why is it you do so?