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Corner Flags, Constraints, and Creativity

New ways to think about how to turn limitations into helpful guides and goads

Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons
A corner flag on a playing field.
Source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

"You don’t have endless resources and endless time. I don’t see that as an obstruction. Instead, I see it as something else that’s guiding us.”

Joe Henry, Songwriter, musician, producer, poet, essayist

All of us have deadlines and limitations on how much money, time, and other resources we have for our creative projects. We can see these constraints as irksome or anxiety provoking, and this they sometimes are! But is this our only option?

Imagine that you had no constraints for a new exciting project on which you’re about to embark. You have lots of time and money, and an abundance of the various resources you need for your project (materials, people, space).

Would creativity be easier for you because you had no clear limitations on what you could do? Or would the lack of constraints actually make it harder for you to be creative? Might the abundance of resources leave you with a “blank space” that was just too wide open –– with endless promising and enticing possibilities appearing every which way you turned?

Thinking about such a vastly wide-open world of endlessly unfolding possibilities may cast constraints in a different light. Rather than only negatively hedging us in, might (at least some) constraints instead positively help us? Could they guide us as we move forward –– so we know where we should best look for new insights? And could they also goad us on –– motivating us to search harder because we know we’ve got to do the best with what we have?

Constraints as both made and found

When researchers observed an engineering design company at work, the researchers found that the design teams looked at constraints in different ways as their project evolved. Sometimes the engineers treated and spoke of their constraints as “corner flags.” The design teams thought of their constraints like the flags we see on a sports field, helping to make more visible the corner borders of the field, indicating to everyone what’s within-bounds and what’s out-of-bounds.

But the design teams also realized that sometimes these flags should — and could –– be moved. In the early stages of their new projects teams referred to the outer limits of the project (project scope) as “inside” or “outside” the “corner flags” and to “moving the corner flags” to change the potential direction of the design.

Yet not all constraints were treated as flexibly changeable. At later stages of the project, the design team spoke of the “frame” of the project to describe more specific, formal, and concrete “absolutes” of their endeavors.

As we describe in our book Innovating Minds (p. 141):

“The case study of the engineering design company revealed four broad ways of treating constraints. One approach was black-boxing, or treating some constraints as fixed and inflexible so as to allow for a focus on other more crucial requirements.

Two other approaches were removal, or temporarily assuming that a particular constraint no longer applied, and the converse, an intentional introduction of a new constraint. Introduction involved internally or externally supplying a constraint that had not previously been specified, such as requiring that the product be environmentally friendly. These self-generated constraints were described as “kick-starters,” as they often helped open up new avenues for exploration after a creative standstill.

Revision of constraints was the fourth approach observed. The engineers revisited constraints to see whether some of them might be tweaked or shifted to give them additional flexibility. They also returned to constraints to assess if they were truly externally imposed rather than optionally adopted during the earlier idea-generating processes.”

Painters, poets, and composers too, play with their constraints. To foster their creative seeking, they may deliberately eliminate or preclude themselves from using a conventional way of working (for example, using no paintbrushes, or no curves, or only primary colors, or including only natural objects). Paradoxically, these self-imposed restrictions often lead to exceptionally innovative and cutting-edge work.

In her book The Creative Habit, the prolifically imaginative choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp wryly summarizes it this way, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources” (p.129).

To think clearly and creatively about our constraints we can ask ourselves such questions as:

  • When do the constraints apply: early, middle, late, or throughout?
  • How flexible are the constraints: non-negotiable or negotiable?
  • How important are each of the constraints: nice to have, must have, or in-between?
  • What is their source: the client or intended user, the task itself, the emerging solution we have reached so far, rules or regulations, something we ourselves earlier chose to impose…?
  • What is their purpose: quality, safety, cost effectiveness, coherence and consistency with our values and larger “aims in view”…?

Moving forward

Being creative about what and who and why we (apparently) have the constraints that we have is part-and-parcel of our innovative thinking and doing. As the award-winning boundary-pushing architect Jeanne Gang observed:

“It’s about designing your own projects. What do you want the project to be about? . . .

It’s always a dilemma; it’s always something that you have to work at trying to create, to make a project more than what you are given on a brief. Because if you just took the brief at face value, then you wouldn’t be contributing . . . Some projects are very hard to re-engineer in terms of their brief and others lend themselves to it well. That’s really the creative process right there, I think, for me.”

Constraints are not just about what we hope to produce or the end product, but equally about how we get there. Jeanne Gang, as an architect, is committed to a sustainable and democratic working process, and this, too, is an ever-present guide and goad.


  • What are your “corner flags” and should they be staked just where they are?
  • What values are continually guiding your (and your team’s) creative process?
  • Where did your constraints come from? Are what you see as your constraints something that you were given, or something that you “made” for yourself, or are they a bit of both?
  • Have your constraints changed? If so, does everyone know?
  • Could you creatively combine two or more constraints to see a new promising direction?
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