Whether it’s driven by less money being available, a growing need, or the increasing complexity of what we’re dealing with, the ability to find creative solutions to ever more difficult issues, is rapidly becoming one of the most valuable skills in the sector.
But before you read this article, I’d like you to do something for me. I’d like you to time how long it takes you to think of five white things. That’s all, just name five different things that are white. Do it now.
Now see how long it takes you to think of five white things that you’d find in a fridge.
Of course you might be an outlier-the exception that proves the rule-but if you’re in the 95% majority, you’ll have done the second test noticeably faster than the first. It’s not because of the order you were asked, it’s because of the constraint you were given. It’s easier to picture five things in a fridge than it is to just picture five things.
I recently spent an afternoon with an extraordinary designer who was having problems finding inspiration for a new brand idea. I asked him about when he’d last been really “in the zone” with his work and he told me of a time, about eighteen months before when he’d been given an almost impossible brief.
He’d been asked by a brand that was very precious about its image, and already came with some powerful, very recognisable artwork that couldn’t be changed, to create a narrow product range in a very specific market area. But whatever he designed had to be “really innovative and different”. There were so many constraints around what he could and couldn’t do, he explained, that it pushed him to be incredibly creative to find ways around them. What he produced in the end, he said, was the best work he had ever done.
“So what’s the brief this time?” I asked. “It’s completely open,” he explained, “I can do pretty much whatever I want, and that’s the problem.”
A blank sheet of paper can be a formidable opponent. Constraints, on the other hand, provide a framework in which you can explore; a boundary against which you can push; a structure against which you can throw all manner of ideas. Here are three simple ways that you or your team can use constraints to kick-start creativity. Give them a try. First time around it will feel weird, and you’ll probably come up with something ridiculous, but there’s likely to be the germ of a great idea in there as well.
Random association: you can do this with objects, images (say from random TV channels or page 93 of a web search), phrases cut from magazines or words randomly chosen from a book. Pick three to six of them, and try to combine them to create a solution to your problem. It’s not easy, but stick with it for 20 minutes and see what you come up with.
What would X do: pick an iconic company, a historical figure or a fictional character-the quirkier the better. And ask yourself, how would they go about solving your problem or making something new and better out of the situation. Don’t chop and change; stick with one, and give it a really good go.
Three things: ask yourself what “three things” are most relevant to this issue or opportunity. For instance, if the product could only have three parts; if you could only make three changes; if you had to explain the problem, and the solution, in just three bullet points. Craft a question to suit the situation, but stick with the rule of three.
BOTTOM LINE: Just as necessity is the mother of invention, constraint is at the heart of creativity. Fortunately for us, it’s incredibly easy to apply constraints. Just pick some at random, push yourself to create within them, and if it’s not working, ditch them and choose some different ones.