Paradox of the Thinking Box: The Importance of Creative Constraints

It is almost an instinctive thought that creativity is a boundless space, one where the more freedom, the better. But would one truly be able to create and produce in the overwhelming infinity outside the box?

When asked to work on a project with absolutely no boundaries, it is safe to say that an individual would be paralyzed by the lack of guidance. Constraints, in that case, act as directions by emphasizing the limitations to be addressed when one is aiming to achieve a goal or to meet an objective. These limitations could be budget, materials and available information, time, and even the laws of physics (Rodriguez, 2015).

The importance of constraints makes them visibly present among different fields including business, science, engineering, architecture, arts, and writing (Rodriguez, 2015). In all of these domains, there are issues to be resolved through creativity. When given absolute freedom to solve a problem, human cognition naturally refers back to what had worked in the past, leading to uncreative solutions (Kaufman, 2011). In a constantly advancing world, recognizing and pushing the limits of current technology and knowledge is essential in problem-solving and decision making.

One field that promotes the explicit definition of limitations is experimental design. For example, if a scientist is to study the effect of a certain new pollutant on marine life, he or she would have to conduct an experiment within the limitations of the available knowledge, sampling tools, and the latest technologies of analysis. Limitations of obtaining samples will contribute to determining the tested species, the size of the sample (i.e how many organisms or groups), and the time or time period of retrieval. Analysis technologies will dictate what defects or deficiencies will be tested for in said species and how, because it is impossible to test every fish in the sea for every abnormality. A limitation that allows no further discussion of the marine pollutant example is that this article is not meant to lead to a scientific breakthrough, but to discuss the concept of creative constraints.

As for arts, many writers have met the hauntings of a blank sheet. A popular approach to this is flash fiction, writing a story with a tight word limit that forces the writer to deliver a great impact with only a few words (Cooper, 2014). For example, a 6-word story attributed to Hemingway (whether or not he wrote it still is unconfirmed) is:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This 6-word story has resonated with me for years. It is exceptionally short, with no clear introduction of characters, settings, or any of the elements of stories for that matter. But the effect it has on the reader is powerful enough to provoke a thread of thought, to inspire sympathy to a protagonist whom we know nothing of.

Meanwhile, single-line pieces, pointillism (only using distinct dots to form images), and straight-line art are all examples, among many, of awe-inspiring forms of visual arts in which constraints constitute the basis of creativity, not the shackles of it. Phil Hansen, an artist who developed nerve damage that destroyed his dream of pursuing art, provides an interesting perspective on the matter. More specifically, this artist had built his entire passion upon pointillism, which was deemed impossible after the tremors of his hand took away his ability to produce perfectly round dots. Hansen’s constraint was defined by his neurologist, who advised him to “embrace the shake.” Eventually, he was able again to produce art through developing new styles, where his shaking hand would not present a hurdle in his path, but a guide to ideas. Upon noticing how driven his creativity became with constraints, he started experimenting. Drawing on 50 Starbucks cups, using his chest as a canvas, and drawing with only Karate-chops are only a few examples (Cooper, 2014).

As paradoxical as this concept appears, it is fairly simple once understood. We often apply it to enhance performance and maintain solid insight. Better understanding enables a person to focus better on what limitations to apply to avoid both shackled thinking and losing sight of aims. While there are no set rules to dictate exactly which constraints are useful and which are not, keep in mind that maybe, building the box could help you proceed beyond it.

Cooper, B. B. (2014, March 10). Proof that constraints can actually make you more creative. Fast Company. Retrieved July 27, 2017 from


Kaufman, S. B. (2011, August 30). Does Creativity Require Constraints? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from


Richardson, A. (2013, June 11). Boosting Creativity Through Constraints. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from



Rodriguez, B. (Writer). (2015, June 13). The power of creative constraints [Video file]. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from