Limited Creativity

By March 16, 2016Something to Say

Many people believe the secret to unlocking amazing creativity is to remove all restrictions. The ideal of “complete creative freedom” is seen as the chance to let all our pent-up creativity burst out, like a stallion finally given free reign to gallop across the prairie.


Well, not not so much.

It doesn’t really work that way. In fact, what really makes great creative work happen is limits.

Galloping across a flat plane is easy. It requires little or no effort. But what happens if you encounter a wall? Now you have something to overcome. It requires creativity to determine how to get over, under, around or through that wall somehow. Your limits are the wall — the obstacle in your path — and the resources you have available.


Figuring out how to use the tools at your disposal is where creativity happens. Can you make a ladder? Use a shovel to dig a tunnel under the wall? You could even blow up the wall with explosives if you have them, though you might spook your stallion. Maybe you don’t have any of these tools, but plenty of time to ride around the wall (solving the problem without breaking the budget).

In short, great creativity happens, not from removing limits, but from overcoming them. Limits that make great creativity happen have a three-part foundation:

  1. Your audience — think of them as being on the other side of the “wall”
  2. Your goal — what you want to move from your side of the wall to theirs, and
  3. Your brand and other resources — how you can get your ideas from your side of the wall to theirs.

Start with the audience and the goal. Understanding who they are and what they respond to will help you determine where their needs and preferences overlap your goal. Together, these two elements will help you determine what the “vehicle” — the method you’ll use to communicate — looks and feels like.

Next, consider what makes up the wall. There’s probably a budget limitation, so factor that in up front. Format might also be a restriction (“this has to fit in a #10 envelope”), or there might be other factors that are more important (“we need to reach a specific group of people, but we’re open to any vehicle within our budget”). Other limits might include time, space, location, competitors and the like.

Your brand is a key resource in this process. If it’s already clearly defined, it may present an obvious way to tackle your wall. If it’s still a little bit amorphous at this point, you’ll have the opportunity to define it more clearly based on what you know about your audience/goal relationship. A good designer can help you determine what aspect of your brand personality any given message needs to have.

Now you start pushing against the wall by making choices based on your brand and the other resources at your disposal. What can you build your “ladder” with? Do you have a talented illustrator or social media guru on your team? Do you have a collection of great custom images that resonate with your audience? Do you have access to a network of billboards in high-traffic locations throughout your market? What choices do these tools make available to you?

Each choice you make will define a certain number of additional choices, often eliminating options or creating others. Keep pushing and the choices become more specific. This is where the creativity really happens, eventually leading you to a solution that’s focused and effective.


The bottom line is this: while it seems counter-intuitive, limits can be incredibly valuable to a designer. Next time we’ll explore how you can create the right environment to enhance your designer’s creativity by providing the right limits.

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