[Rhizome is proud to present a series of writings courtesy of fellow collaborator Cliff Guren. Subscribe to Cliff’s newsletter Metaphor, for weekly writings on creative thinking, productivity, and the arts.]

First published on December 3, 2020 on CliffGuren.com

5 to 10 Minute Read


Mental models are lenses—they help you see, discover, and understand. But like real optical lenses, sometimes they can be flipped to reveal completely opposite perspectives. The concept of constraints is a perfect example. We’re living in a time of constraints: impediments, limitations, and restrictions stemming from the pandemic. And we’re grappling with other urgent issues that will constrain our options and behavior from now on, such as world hunger, social injustice, and income inequality. Our natural tendency is to see each of these complex problems as a kaleidoscope image: a swirling pattern of unsolvable constraints. They are challenging problems, but experience teaches us that constraints are also opportunities for invention. Constraints can be a catalyst for creative thinking, invention, and new modes of expression.

Miles Davis and the Harmon Mute

A call to God. A call to war. A call to celebration. The trumpet blasts, announces, cuts—through the air, the fog, the crowded dance floor. Schooled during the big-band and be-bop eras of jazz, in the 1950s Miles Davis began exploring his passion for ballads. The middle register of the trumpet is the traditional range for ballads—the warm, open tones of the middle register are easy on the ear and warm the heart. But the emotional range that Miles wanted to express in his ballad playing required a larger sonic palette: the pain and sorrow best expressed in the trumpet’s lower and upper registers. It’s difficult to play quietly in those registers, so Miles started using a mute—a Harmon mute to be specific. The metal bulb-shaped mute fits into the bell of the horn and dampens its volume. The mute enabled Miles to play in the lower and upper registers and still maintain the ambience he was looking for. But Miles wanted even more emotional shading. He removed the stem of the mute and dented the bell so it buzzed a bit, and in the process invented an iconic sound. His muted trumpet doesn’t call, it cries. He intentionally constrained the volume of his instrument and wound up creating an intimate, unique sound that transformed the expressive range of the trumpet and gave us music of incredible emotional depth and beauty. (Links to some of Miles’s ballads follow below.)


External and Self-Imposed Constraints

Some constraints are imposed by external factors, others we choose. For example, architectural design is always impacted by external constraints—the size and characteristics of the land, potential environmental impacts, the siting of adjacent properties, zoning limitations, and budget to name just a few of the factors that influence the architect’s work. And yet Frank Lloyd Wright said “Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.” Why? Because studies show constraints “provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas…” (“Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, November 2019.) Constraints are also a catalyst for invention.

Igor Stravinsky said “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” Both external and self-imposed constraints have played an important role in shaping the creative work of many other artists:

The list goes on and on…

Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.

—G.K. Chesterton

Constraints take options off the table, and in the process diminish cognitive load imposed by the creative process. A blank page, an open stage, a fresh canvas, a quiet room are all open fields filled with limitless possibilities. Frightening! But introduce one or two rules or constraints, and suddenly there’s some structure, some tension to push against.

Established art forms and genres provide useful constraints—rules and expectations that foster creativity. Many artists are associated with specific forms and genres because the constraints of the form or genre drove the artist to levels of invention that redefined its possibilities: Shakespeare’s sonnets, Bach’s The Goldberg Variations arias, Rembrandt’s portraits, Chekhov’s short stories, and Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings to name a few. One prerequisite for achieving a flow state (aka being “in the zone”) is striking a balance between challenge and boredom—grappling with a problem that challenges you, but doesn’t overwhelm you.


Experiment with Constraints in Your Creative Process

I tried to, with a series of self-imposed limitations, back myself into my own personal corner where nobody else’s answers would fit. I’ve always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.

— Chuck Close

You can impose a constraint (or a set of constraints) for a single project, a series of projects, or a stage of a project. Just remember that your goal is to stimulate creativity, not block it. A game with too many rules is no fun.

Here are six ideas on applying constraints to your creative process. Use them to develop an initial feel for how and when constraints stimulate your creativity, then find or create other constraints that fuel your creative fires.

  • Limit your time – Give yourself a limited amount of time to complete your project, or stage of your project. For example, give yourself 30 minutes to create a rough outline or mind-map of a new essay.

  • Narrow your choice of materials – Pre-select a simplified list of materials for your project—a small group of colors to paint with, a set number of instruments to compose for, or a limited number of ingredients to cook with.

  • Adopt one or more formal constraints – Explore an established form (such as the sonnet or haiku), a new form (flash fiction, for example), or a form of your own invention. The key is to choose and work within a set of established rules.

  • Build on your “mistakes” – Miles Davis said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” Live with your mistakes, build on them, look for the doors that open when your preconceived notions of what’s “right” are challenged.

  • Surrender control – Integrate randomness into your work. Use a tool like Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards to periodically introduce new constraints and choices into your process, or a tool like Osborn’s Checklist to drive your process.

  • Redefine quality – What does “quality work” mean to you? For most of us, quality is synonymous with luxury. A Lexus is a quality car. But quality actually means a predictable degree of uniformity and dependability against a specific standard. Luxury is subjective, a specific standard is not. Open loops can be useful, but too often they run amok! Identify the audience for your work, the purpose of the piece you’re working on, and your standard for quality work ahead of time, and hold yourself to your established criteria for success.

(You may wonder why I included six suggestions. You gotta walk the talk! I asked Siri to give me a random number between one and ten: Siri came back with the number six. I included six suggestions.)

Finally, a word on “free form” art: There is no such thing as art that’s completely free from constraints. As Seth Godin notes in The Practice, “All creative work has constraints, because all creativity is based on using existing constraints to find new solutions.” Whenever artists create a new genre, to avoid “flabbiness” the artists are “obliged to develop substitute constraints, in the form either of arbitrary rules of work or a code of inner rejections” (Harold Rosenberg, art critic, writing about abstract expressionism). It isn’t a genre if there aren’t some discernible similarities between two or more works in the genre.


Reframing Constraints

It’s not an overstatement to say that humankind’s future depends on our ability to reframe constraints. Traditional business thinking views a constraint as a limitation—on throughput for example (the amount of information or material that can pass through a system or process). That view is still relevant in many contexts, but as you’ve learned, it’s just one available view through a two-sided lens. In their book A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan & Mark Barden explore how various businesses, such as Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and IKEA use constraints to drive innovation, revenues, and profits. But reframing constraints in business is not just about adding to the bottom line—it’s about changing our cultural mindset. The big, critical challenges we face, such as climate change, require us to see constraints as “beautiful,” to ask as Morgan and Barden suggest: “Where is the beauty in this constraint?” or “How can we make this constraint beautiful?” They add these are “both natural [questions] to ask and reflective of a new way of seeing constraints—one that is alight to their possibilities rather than shadowed by their threat. To capture the capability to realize that potential, we hope to reclaim the word and the idea of inventiveness, and make it a concept that’s more accessible for more people, in more domains.”

The inventiveness you bring to reframing constraints, to using them to fuel your creativity, and enrich your artistic expression can be contagious. Our future depends on it.


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