4th December 2020 0 Comments Creativity, Purpose

How can constraints enhance creativity?

Silhouette of person trapped in building, overlaid by coloured paint

Embracing the shake

Phil Hansen was studying at art school when he noticed a tremor in his hands. After spending years pursuing pointillism, clenching his fist to create thousands of tiny dots, he found himself in so much pain that he struggled to hold anything at all. 

“I was in a dark place for a long time, unable to create,” he recalls. 

But after a long time of feeling creatively stagnant, he received a life-changing piece of advice from a neurologist.

“Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” 

Hansen began to experiment with new ways of producing art. He pursued new methods of creating, dipping his feet in paint and walking over the canvas or burning his work with a blowtorch. He would challenge himself to work with unconventional materials: dandelion puffs, live worms and hamburger grease.

“What I thought would be the ultimate limitation turned out to be the ultimate liberation,” he explains. “Looking at limitations as a source of creativity changed the course of my life.”

Hansen is not alone in finding that limitations can spur creativity. The Swiss painter, Paul Klee, was diagnosed with scleroderma in 1936, yet his productivity peaked in the years preceding his death. In the final full year of his life, he produced over 1200 paintings, including some of his largest and most striking works. His drawing became more forceful, the colours more prominent, and he experimented with new techniques of grinding paint.

“It had been a life of incomparably rich harvests,” wrote Felix Klee on his father’s late work, “but during this very past year a harvest matured which seemed to add something entirely new to all that he had already reaped.”

“Looking at limitations as a source of creativity changed the course of my life.”

New ways of seeing

In her book When Walls Become Doorways, the psychologist Tobi Zausner argues that creativity is often used as an outlet or response to pain or limitation. Recounting cases of a myriad of artists, from Frida Kahlo’s crippling traffic accident to Claude Monet’s cataracts, she argues that encountering a physical constraint encourages artists to adopt alternative creative strategies and engenders new ways of experiencing the world.

“Life’s lowest moments can hold our greatest potential for creativity and transformation,” she writes. “When the wall of illness becomes a door of opportunity, the worst of times can bring out the best in us.”

Zausner refers to a period of illness to a “creative chaos”, which instigates a heightened sensitivity to stimuli and helps the artist break away from old habits. 

“When the wall of illness becomes a door of opportunity, the worst of times can bring out the best in us.”

Indeed, whilst we think of ourselves as actively experiencing the world, we often find ourselves trapped in repetitive patterns of perception. In 1932, Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University when he coined the term “schema”, referring to a set of related concepts that define a mental object. For example, if we read, ‘tall, brown, green, leaves’, our brains are primed to fire ‘tree’, and other ideas associated with it. 

In the past few decades, neuroscience has increasingly revealed to us that much of the activity in the sensory networks in our brains is intrinsically generated: it relies on previously formulated knowledge rather than external stimuli. This is because the brain has to process a vast amount of information, so it is prone to take shortcuts. In other words, our complex perceptions are actually shaped by pre-existing associations and expectation, meaning that we struggle to engage with the world outside the semantic categories our cultures have organised it in.

However, when we encounter an obstacle in the way we usually experience the world, we begin to see things differently. Whilst sometimes limitations are involuntary (in the case of Claude Monet’s blurred vision or Frida Kahlo’s excruciating broken bones), other times they are deliberately evoked. Taking psychedelic drugs, for example, increases the spontaneous firing of brain cells. This alters sensory and perceptual processing, allowing us to make new hypotheses about the world.

“When well placed, constraints can force us to step out of our mental comfort zone and connect a schema to something new. This can very often lead to innovative ideas,” explains Jason Bell, Associate Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School.

Barriers that lead to breakthroughs

Given its pivotal role in innovation, creativity plays a vital role in the success of an organisation. “I like to think of constraints for creativity as barriers that lead to breakthroughs,” writes psychology professor Patricia D. Stokes, in Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough. 

Psychologists theorise that there is an optimum balance between focus, freedom and resources within the creative process. In a research project conducted in 2018, psychologists reviewed 145 empirical studies and found that the relationship between creativity and constraints formed a U-shape curve. Whilst too many constraints can be stifling, too little causes complacency. This means that individuals follow the “path-of-least-resistance” – “they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas”. 

“Constraints,” they write, “provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources”.

Graph displaying the relationship between constraints and creativity


“Like the Yerkes Dodson relationship between arousal and performancethere is a sweet spot for the constraints that facilitate and enhance creative work,” writes psychology professor, Dr Volker Patent. 

“I like to think of constraints for creativity as barriers that lead to breakthroughs.”

This was the case with MAC 400, a portable electrocardiograph machine developed by GE Healthcare. The engineers had a complex set of constraints:they needed to squeeze the same technology into a portable device that weighs less than three pounds, which costs no more than $1 per scan. On top of this, they had just 18 months to develop it and a very modest budget. Yet within these limitations, they managed to defy expectations, creating the world’s first ultra-portable electrocardiogram machine which revolutionized rural access to medical care. 

In narrowing available resources or abilities, limitations are momentous sources of potential for organisations. Constraints push innovators to generate new ideas. They encourage the creation of novel and useful products, services or business processes – adding value to society by solving problems or enhancing lives. As Hansen puts it, “learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves, and collectively, transform our world”.