Use constraints to fuel your creativity

Quickly, think of as many white things as you can in ten seconds.  Now think of white things in your kitchen.  Did the more constrained prompt spark more ideas? Yes.

Recent research on the best approach to creating novel things says that the number one key to innovation is scarcity. In other words, constraints help you focus on what matters.

Apple knows that embracing constraints helps them focus on what matters. Google is popular for using constraints to fuel their design and development process which have resulted in ‘perceived innovations’ in user experience. The ever popular 37 Signals, maker of online business management apps, pretty much runs their business on constraints.

So, how does placing constraints to fuel creativity look like?

Fueling creativity

A few months ago a client of mine let me know that they’re in the process of opening another restaurant and that this one will focus on Mediterranean food. With months away before it opens, they asked me if I had any ideas on whatever.

I won’t go into full detail about our discussion, but what I will do is show you how placing constraints changes the ideas you generate by shifting your perception.

Time constraint

1st Approach: How much time does the average family spend at a restaurant? An hour to an hour and a half (we Mexicans like to take our time).

  • What if we created a concept restaurant experience so they only spend 30 minutes? What would that look like?

2nd Approach: What if the menu was composed of only five different meals?

  • What activities would need to be done so the client stays an hour and a half with us? How would the customer experience change?

3rd Approach: How would Apple do it?

  • If Steve Jobs walked in, what would be the ‘crappy’ stuff he would tell us to eliminate?

Money constraint

Another constrain often times is money. For example, how much does the average family spend at a restaurant? $50 – $80

  • What if we have a policy that clients spend less than that? How would our plates change? Meals? People?

The questions above are things I thought out rather quickly with no real goal in mind, just thinking out loud. The answers will be all over the place, but that’s the key. To unlock your brain you have to ask the ‘unquestionable’.

The key is asking the questions that actually matter. This is tricky. If you’re interested to learn more, go to

Closing thoughts

The thing about constraints is it forces you to look at different angles to approach a problem. It’s also important to have balance and look at the opposite of placing constraints, creative stretching, for coming up with unseen ideas.

While my example applies to a restaurant, you can use constraints on anything. How have I used constraints? I’ve used it to accelerate my basketball conditioning in less time, to write short blog posts that get to the point, to tweet less stuff but that actually matters, to read less but get more out of it.

Fuel your creativity!

How do you use constraints in your work, life?

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Also published on Medium.

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