Creative Constraint: Why Tighter Boundaries Propel Greater Results

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 12/7/16 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehension. Article originally posted on in 2011.


Where do great ideas come from?

Many of us imagine creativity comes from an environment of boundless possibility — no rules or restrictions.

We also have a stereotype of “creatives.” They work in studios rather than office buildings, wear jeans instead of suits and are filled with endless creative solutions.

But creativity doesn’t ONLY come from a totally open environment or a certain type of person.

We falsely think that if our world or profession is constrained, we cannot enjoy wild creativity.


That isn’t the case.

Here are some examples and ways that you can make creative constraint work for you and your business.

The benefit of boundaries

It sounds counter-intuitive, but boundaries can actually boost creativity.

Think about procrastination. Deadlines are often the single factor that ensures projects get done.

As Dave Gray commented on his blog, “Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.”

When there are no boundaries, the possibilities may seem too large. That’s why some of the greatest art and innovation has come from a situation of constraint.

Growing in resilience

Resilient people continue to try, fall down, stand up and try again.

A Newsweek article discussed the effects of hardship on children, and how it may have fueled their success as adults. “Highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible — and flexibility helps with creativity.”

Resiliency makes people less afraid of mistakes.

Each time they take a new tack, they try more and more unconventional possibilities. Boundaries don’t defeat them — boundaries inspire them to keep trying other options.

Tweet: Boundaries can be a catalyst for your most creative solutions. #improvtips

Case study: Phil Hansen

When Phil Hansen was an art student, he developed a pointillist drawing style that he relied on throughout art school.

He was thrown for a loop when he suffered an injury that kept him from making art in his signature style.

Phil walked away from art completely for several years.

After his self-imposed hiatus, he came back, determined to use creative constraints to his advantage.

His injury caused his hands to be shaky, so instead of eschewing all art as he had for several years, he incorporated shaky lines into his drawings.

Phil started to see the creative power of working within restraints and he gave himself more limits.

For example, he began painting with only karate moves and making art using matchsticks.

Case study: Apollo 13

In 1970, Apollo 13 went on a lunar mission.

The launch was successful, but a fault from inside the space module caused an explosion that turned the exploration into a test for survival for the crew.

Carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts began to build up in the module.

On the ground, an engineering team had to figure out a way to clean the air with only the equipment on board and very little time.

It was the unbelievable constraints and the pressure of lives at risk that drove them to a totally unexpected solution.

They figured out a way for the command module’s square air cleaners to be used in the lunar module’s round receivers.

Who says a square peg can’t fit in a round hole?

The improvisation piece

Improv provides a perfect template for creating more with less.

Improvisational performers see a scarcity of resources — like a script, props or costumes — as a golden opportunity rather than a problem.

Good improvisation also follows unspoken rules: You must accept all contributions, you must justify anything that’s introduced on stage, and everyone must participate.

By adhering to these boundaries, improvisers know they can be wildly creative in all other ways.

While “improv” seems to imply the absence of constraints, most scenes have to be based around suggestions from the audience.

These constraints are what make improv both so enjoyable and so creative.

Applying creative constraint principles to your business

So how does this apply at work?

My company once worked with the distribution leadership team of one of the largest retailers in the U.S.

We were tasked to stretch the thinking, strategy and creativity of the group.

We found that the executives could be lazy in their brainstorming.

This was around 2003-04, and they had gigantic budgets, huge numbers of employees and seemingly endless resources. You would think that with that surplus, anything would be possible.

On the contrary, they seemed to care very little for innovation, since the entire enterprise was fat and happy.

In our practice exercises, we imposed ridiculous boundaries of time and money on them, and demanded high-level outcomes.

For example, we asked them to light an entire warehouse with only one light bulb. They had $5 for supplies and two hours to work.

Or we asked them to take a high school juvenile delinquent and make him/her able to run a new division of their company in 48 hours or less, with a $100 budget.

I finally saw them lean in, work hard, and come up with a few really startling ideas — but only because they were forced to.

Boundaries are the catalyst for innovation

When constraint becomes mandatory, we suddenly have to recalibrate how we work.

The economic downturn has forced us to realize that business will never, ever be conducted in the same way.

We have to be more innovative, leaner, faster and smarter.

From this difficult time, companies have started collaborating with former competitors, created unforeseen relationships with their clients through social media and created products that are better, yet cheaper.

They’ve discovered creative ways to address unexpected constraints.

So the next time a situation just seems too hard, too locked down, and surrounded by boundaries, think like an improviser.

This could be your best opportunity for a creative solution.

Can you think of a situation in which having boundaries forced you to think creatively?

Think about the boundaries you have to work within and look for ways to “think outside the box” while you’re in the box. 

This article is 100% written by a human named Karen Hough. She is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, in the top 4% of women-owned businesses in the US, a 3-time Amazon bestselling author, Yale grad, wife and mom of three.