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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Creativity and Constraints

I'm not generally a reality show fan, and I'm definitely sick of the "audience votes off one person per week" style of show, but nevertheless Heather Marie has gotten me hooked on both Project Runway and Top Chef. I think I can tolerate (and even thoroughly enjoy) those shows because the selections are being made by real experts and because I enjoy watching talented craftsmen at work.

One thing I've noticed on both shows, though, is the positive effect that constraints have on the quality of work the contestants produce. It's especially pronounced on Project Runway, which we were watching tonight. In the regular weekly challenges, the designers get something like 24 hours and a limited amount of money to create their dresses, usually within fairly restrictive parameters. However for the final competition, they are given 5 months and $5000 for their fashion lines, with basically no limits on their designs.

What repeatedly strikes me, though, is that the designs they produce when completely unfettered seem to be consistently inferior to what they produce under the tight constraints of the normal competition. That's not to say that their unrestrained designs are bad or, for that matter, that they're not actually better than the weekly ones, just that they aren't and order of magnitude better as the time and resources would predict.

Consider the difference between being given a pen and paper and being told to "write something" versus being told to "write a story about a cat." The second scenario is obviously more constrained: you must write a story and it must involve a cat. In the first scenario, you could write anything, be it a poem, a shopping list, or a letter -- you have complete freedom to create. In practice, though, I suspect that people in the "cat story" group would produce things that would be generally considered to be more "creative," even though they had less freedom.

I think there are two lessons here. First, constraints help focus our attention and energy, which generally leads to better quality and impact. Second, the landscape of creative expression is so incredibly vast that you can render huge swathes of it inaccessible yet still have enough space remaining to build works of incredible imagination and creativity.

In fact, maybe that gives us a clue to what we really mean by "creativity": Perhaps it isn't merely the ability to produce new things, but the ability to discover sufficient space between constraints to produce new things.

If necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity is its father, then I think we can reasonably say that constraints are its godparents.

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