Does Creativity Require Constraints?

How constraints can promote creativity

Posted Aug 30, 2011

If I asked you to draw a person from planet aardvark, would you be more creative if (a) I gave you no examples, or (b) gave you a few examples of what aardvarkians look like?

Research suggests you'd be more creative if I didn't allow your mind to roam free. When people are given the task of imagining alien creatures, most use specific instances (e.g., joe the plumber) as their starting point. This effect is especially pronounced when creatures are described as being intelligent and capable of space travel. Even science fiction writers aren't immune to this effect: content analyses of creatures invented by science fiction writers show striking similarities to animals here on earth: bilateral symmetry, and the presence of legs and eyes represented symmetrically in heads at the tops of bodies. Most science fiction writers aren't all that imaginative!

Creativity involves variability— different ways of doing things. But creativity also involves constraints, which can either promote or preclude creativity. This simple, yet extremely important and non-obvious insight is the basis of Patricia Stokes’s excellent book "Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough". Through an impressive array of examples, she makes it clear that constraints play a role in many different creative domains, and in many of the most revolutionary creative products of our time.