Man's Friend at Heart
Constraints are the catalysts for creativity, not impediments to it
We believe a blank canvas is the ideal starting point for creating something new. We feel that without constraints our minds will be untethered, and hence free to come up with original ideas. However, I would suggest quite the opposite - constraints do not impede creativity, in fact, they are necessary catalysts for any creative process. They create tangible barriers that we must wrestle, circumvent, or dance with - and from this churning emerges unexpected and thrilling ways of navigating the problem.
Let me demonstrate using three stories...
Man's Friend at Heart
When I last visited my friend's house, his son Aadi pulled up his iPad to show me his latest middle school project - a short animation that he had developed with his classmates, called "Man's Friend at Heart". I was bowled over by the inventiveness and technical finesse of the film. I recommend you watch the video before reading further.
I was curious about some of his design choices, especially the gladiator's head - facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.) were replaced by a simple animated plus sign. Interestingly, subtracting the facial features did not take away from the emotional expression of the character, in fact it accentuated it. Why this choice? He deadpanned that the plus sign was meant to be a placeholder, but they were running out of time so they decided to stick with it and improvised to make it work.
Time constraints compelled Aadi and his co-creators to come up with an imaginative alternative.
Mangalyaan - India's Mars Mission
On November 5, 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars, called "Mangalyaan". It was an ambitious undertaking for a developing nation, and only the fourth space agency in the world to pull it off. The most compelling part of the story was that ISRO managed the mission with a mere budget of $74 million, at one-tenth the cost of the American Maven orbiter which was launched around the same time. In fact, many joked that the ISRO budget was less than the budget for the Hollywood movie "Gravity", starring Sandra Bullock.
The ridiculously low budget forced Indian scientists and engineers to ditch any templates from previous missions, and re-imagine how such an interplanetary mission could be designed. The Mangalyaan's key breakthrough was to save on fuel costs by turning its engine on and off at precise moments to create multiple slingshot orbits around the earth, before a final trigger to set it on course for Mars.
Cost efficiency innovations that result from budgetary constraints often lead to improvements in areas beyond monetary savings - they help stretch the possibilities of what can be achieved even at higher budgets.
Hemingway's Short Short Story
Ernest Hemingway is attributed as the author of one of the first flash fiction stories - a micro-story said in six words. He wrote it on the spot as a $10 bet with his fellow writers. Although there is debate and controversy surrounding the authenticity of this origin story, it serves our purpose well. Here's the story:
"FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN."
As they say, sometimes less is more. This is an example of a self-imposed constraint, rather than externally imposed ones (like time or money) as in the previous two examples.
Embrace constraints that you are dealt with - welcome them with open arms as gifts that will help you think out of the box.
Impose constraints on yourself as a challenge, and tap into your latent creativity. Here are some constraint prompts that you could incorporate into your life and work:
draft your next presentation using just post-it notes, one note per slide, one short sentence per note
shoot only b&w pictures for an entire week
draft your next document using pen and paper, and type it in later
cook the next meal in under 30 minutes
If you have any anecdotes about constraints resulting in creative outcomes, or additional constraint prompts, please write a comment (or reply to this email).
For the first constraint prompt above, I prefer to use 3x5 in post-it notes - they match the shape of PowerPoint slides. Check it out here.
AROUND THE WEB
This 11-minute TedX Talk by Ritu Karidhal on the Mangalyaan story is well worth the watch. Click here. My favorite quote is at the end:
"While this mission has stirred inspiration into the veins of every Indian student, it has created an awe towards science and technology in the whole country. The bigger mission achieved was to empower 1.25 billion people and make them realize the inherent power and strength of Indians to reach a far planet and showing to the world, we are second to none."