Do you think that creativity thrives with an endless array of options or do you think that it needs more structure?
Do you think that having rules, restrictions and deadlines restricts or enhances your creativity?
There is a misconception that restrictions and rules limit the creativity of an individual.
Restrictions, rules and frameworks are good for creativity
According to lead Game Designer for the game Magic -The gathering, Mark Rosewater:
“Restrictions create breeding grounds for creativity.”
Rosewater states that the game Magic needs a set of rules for the design process to be successful. Some of the rules are structure, clarity, consistency and focus.
Structure: Having a game plan of what you would like to accomplish, a framework or a skeleton is important.
According to Rosewater, structure makes you look at the big picture and allows all the little parts to be figured out and fall together in place.
Since design and creativity often involves building things, embracing order that dictates structure is quite productive.
The process of having a structure and creating structural tension has been discussed by Robert Fritz in his book, The Path of Least Resistance.
According to Fritz, knowing a start point and having a clear end point of what you would like to create invokes structural tension that begs resolution.
Clarity: Having a clear idea of what you want to create and what definitions mean is very important to the success of the creative process.
If you are excessively ambiguous, everything soon turns into a big, disorganized mess. And this is especially true for creative teams where being on the same creative page is essential for the success of the project.
Meaningful and simple definitions of each part of the creative process and their consensus among the different teams may just be key to creative success.
Consistency: Rosewater clarifies that many people work on the design of Magic but having a singular vision is important. Rules ensure that there is consistency.
I agree completely with this assessment since it is similar to the “start with why” from bestselling author Simon Sinek. Define what your main compelling reason is to create something.
Rules also ensure that the efforts of a team are built upon by other teams and not repeated or in some cases even negated.
Having a unified mission makes it certain that everyone is working towards the same goals and mission.
This mission should be loud and clear. Whether you are working for a team or for yourself, if you do not have a consistent and unified message, you will send mixed signals to the world and that might not be beneficial.
Focus: Change is good but too much change can make the focus diffuse and the target of creative accomplishment impossible.
According to Rosewater:
“While change is the lifeblood of Magic, too much change is disconcerting and could have long-term negative ramifications. Design rules ensure that the designers aim their energies in similar directions.”
Myths against rules and restrictions for creativity
Myth: Rules inhibit creativity
There seem to be many myths about the creative process. One of the myths is that creativity flourishes without any restrictions. Creativity is free flowing and if you restrict the process, you are in the risk of killing it.
Rosewater describes that it a myth that rules are an obstacle to creativity.
When the mind is given unlimited choices, it reverts back to what it knows and known pathways.
The example that Rosewater gives is that if you gave an experienced writer a topic on even days and allowed her mind to freely wander on odd days, she would me more creative on the even days.
If you do not give a writer a topic to write and ask them to come up with ideas, their mind will freely wander and may revert back to what they know. However, if you gave a writer a fixed topic such as the local farmers market, their creativity will go on overdrive and they may write a story about the life and challenges of the local farmer and their neighbor, the soap maker.
These may be novel ideas and concepts that have been sparked by providing a structure to the writer.
Many creative people deliberately impose restrictions on their creative process by giving themselves an idea or topic to work on and allowing their mind to work creative associations within the restrictions.
I have previously written about the creative process: “Creativity is like a spontaneous experiment within the confines of a controlled framework.”
Work from the production of the game Magic seems to confirm this idea. If you have a theme, it becomes much more easy to find ideas and be creative in a novel fashion.
In the production process of Magic, if there is no theme, Rosewater believes that his mind reverts back to what he has done before. But if you give his mind a theme such as creatures, he is creatively fired up and ready to go.
Myth: Rules make it harder to work and complicate matters
Rosewater emphasizes that rules are tools to use effectively and not obstacles.
I think this is a very important point because the moment we confront rules, we mentally give up on creativity. But the lack of rules makes it very hard for the creative process to move forward.
Rosewater’s example here is brilliant. He gives the example of carpenters using a hammer to drive nails. Imagine that a carpenter gets criticized because of using a hammer or a fixed method and that it is limiting or is an obstacle to their choices to drive nails into wood.
The rule or hammer is in place in this case because it helps and is not a constraint.
Myth: Art should not have rules and should be free flowing
This is a myth that makes many people not make any progress in their creative projects.
When you imagine art as being free flowing and without rules and restrictions, your mind is confronted with endless choice.
And there is research suggesting that too much choice paralyzes our decision-making ability and even decreases our happiness levels. Watch psychologist and Professor Barry Schwartz’s TED talk here.
Studying techniques and rules is important for the creative process because without them we would not know how to proceed.
If I wanted to paint a landscape watercolor piece and did not know the basics of watercolor behavior on paper or the rules and details of painting, I have a problem.
Spontaneity happens when you are already fluid with the structural rules of the creative process.
Research from one of the leading researchers on creativity and flow, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that for flow or optimal states to occur there have to be certain conditions that need to be met.
Some of the conditions for flow are extended practice within the framework or within the rules of the art, high skills, immersion, concentration, and high challenge.
In my opinion, these conditions can be fulfilled by defining rules and practicing within the framework that creates the flow condition.
It seems to me that only after we put our time with the rules of creativity or engage the art form we are involved with, we can experience the spontaneous creation of flow or an optimal state where creative magic is free to happen.
Myth: Extreme time pressure and stress is good for Creativity
Excess tension and deadlines may be counter-productive for creativity.
Some amount of creative tension and having deadlines has the power to enhance the creative focus but after a certain point, creativity is negatively correlated with stress and extreme time pressure.
In other words, too much stress and lack of focus is not good for creativity.
There is research to suggest that deadlines that invoke anxiety do not work as effective restrictions and act to limit and not enhance the creativity of a person.
In research done by Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile, pressure created by time deadlines allows creativity to thrive if focus and meaningful urgency or being on a mission is accomplished.
The example that Dr. Amabile gives is the urgency and focus that was achieved after the Apollo 13 accident in 1970 that damaged the air filtration system on board.
Working under severe time and material constraints, ground mission control immediately focused all its attention to building a crude but effective filtration system using materials on board the spaceship.
The impaired astronauts on board were able to assemble the system just in time to save their lives.
However, creativity does not thrive with high pressure and time constraints when the focus is absent and people feel that they are on a treadmill.
This situation of low focus can be created by distractions and changing directions often.
Myth: Having endless time is good for creativity
Become aware that allowing some restricted time frame will allow you to complete your creative project more effectively.
The idea here is that if you give a project 1 hour, you will finish it in 1 hour and if you give it 3 hours, well you guessed it! It stretches into that 3 hours and does not necessarily confer any creative advantage. This phenomenon is called Parkinson’s law and states that work will expand to fill the amount of time that you allocate and that is available for its completion.
Of course there are processes and ideas that may require incubation but becoming aware of the stretching nature of work and allowing a bit of restriction may be beneficial for the creative process.
There is something about having the right amount of creative tension and having just enough time restriction that is maximally beneficial for the creative process.
Action Tips to Enhance Creativity:
1. Have a structure or a game plan.
2. Become very clear about what you want to achieve.
3. Consistency of vision: have a unified “why?”
4. Focus on what is important and not have it too diffuse.
5. Be aware of the myths and assumptions about creativity and rules.
6. Engage in skill development, immersion and understanding the rules that govern your art.
7. Be spontaneous within a framework of “why?” “where you are at?” “where you want to be?” and “rules.”
8. Excessive tension and time deadlines that make you anxious are counter-productive to creativity unless you feel like you are on a mission and maintain high focus.
9. Realize the stretching nature of creative work or Parkinson’s Law . Give yourself enough time but not so much that you begin to wander and revert back to non-novel ideas. Set up some creative tension by imposing reasonable time restrictions.
What do you think? Do you think that restrictions enhance or restrict your creativity?