Willingly Accept Constraints: How Rules Can Actually Make You More Creative

Sometimes the rules are what inspires the creativity…

Willingly Accept Constraints: How Rules Can Actually Make You More Creative

Design is often acknowledged as an independent and
free-spirited world where the mind can do amazing
things in a space without limits, a place where creatives
can develop new and original ideas from nothing. The
phrase “creative freedom” is usually thought to be music to a
designer’s ear, and empowers the thought process, enabling
the designer to consider all possibilities in an open landscape.
It can be widely assumed that innovators embrace the
unknown and do their best work when the limits are boundless
and the potential wide open. People often think the
greatest innovations come from a special place where a brilliant
mind, or minds, working free from constraints suddenly
achieves an aha moment and—poof—out comes a new
invention. Certainly we can name many of the great design
innovations that have resulted from this process. Or can we?
Did Thomas Edison work this way? Maybe Charles and
Ray Eames? Actually, they did not. As counterintuitive as it
might seem, innovation comes from a world of paradox—a
world where it is constraint that sparks the genius of the
designer, where the pressure of limits and demands provides
a combustible combination of direction and inspiration. Take
for example the Eames’ classic Powers of Ten movie, which
in 15 minutes describes the relative size of all things in the
known universe. It demonstrates the infinite inspiration that
can be drawn from reviewing our universe with the lens of
increasing and decreasing powers of 10. The constraint
(or construct) of this telescoping perspective makes this
remarkable movie and design achievement possible. Charles
willingly accepted the constraints.


Eames was known to call constraints “liberating.” Yahoo
CEO Marissa Mayer agrees; writing for a business journal
recently she concluded, “Constraints shape and focus problems,
and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as
inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced
with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
Herman Miller has developed and follows a set of 10
tenets for design that it believes increases innovation. The
lasting success of Herman Miller suggests that great innovation
comes from the tension between a well-developed
set of constraints and the limitless creative mind. In fact,
designers not under the Herman Miller umbrella also believe
that design constraints provided by the company improve
results. In 1977, Nicholas Grimshaw, an architect, discussed
the recently completed Herman Miller manufacturing facility
in Bath, England. According to him, the excellence of
the facility could never have been achieved without the
poetry and constraints in the design brief provided to him by
Herman Miller. The building was recognized by the Financial
Times as the best industrial building of the year. Frank Lloyd
Wright, one of the world’s greatest architects, also observed
this phenomenon at work in the world: “Man built most nobly
when limitations were at their greatest.”

In the last decade we have seen Samsung push its
design and innovation to new heights. Its new design campus
in Korea is a major capital investment in the belief in
design and its relationship to innovation. The company did
not make these improvements in a vacuum. Samsung has
imposed constraints on itself in the form of design criteria:
that design and innovation should be simple and intuitive,
efficient and long-lasting, and adaptive and engaging. IBM
also innovates within a self-imposed structure of constraints
used to drive design. The company considers it
“a framework for the freedom to act.” Virgin Atlantic does
not have a specific design process, but it has instituted a
structure to ensure that the constraints of time and budget
are always met.

Constraints do not have to be obstacles, but can in fact provide a
launching pad for creative thought and direction. It is as much about
one’s attitude toward the things that seem restrictive as
the restrictions themselves. If seen as obstacles or innovation
killers, then the designer’s mind will most likely feel
restricted, blocking the flow of creative ideas. If embraced
as guidelines and unique challenges to provide focused
inspiration, the designer’s mind will remain open. Eames
knew this: “I don’t remember being forced to accept compromises,
but I’ve willingly accepted constraints.”


For example, Crown, the award-winning forklift manufacturer, leads
the industry through a commitment to design innovation. It
does so through an approach that focuses on the humanto-
forklift relationship. Crown’s innovation comes from
designing within the constraints presented by the human
operator. Through advanced research and a dedicated
focus on the capabilities of operators, the company is able
to create the most advanced ideas for operator productivity
and safety and product lifespan. Crown sets the industry
standard for the highest capacities and productivity speeds.
In addition to company successes like Crown, singular examples
of great design in response to constraint can be found
everywhere. As counter intuitive as it may seem.

“I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do.
One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”
—Jeff Bezos

Mark Dziersk – LUNAR


About the author

Mark Dziersk is Managing Director of LUNAR in Chicago. LUNAR is one of the world’s top strategic design, engineering and branding firms