Anyone reading this section of Sunday| Mag has run into the concept of constraints. It’s what we as designers do day in and day out. In our minds we believe the lie that having constraints limits us as designers. But when they’re looked at through the correct lens and embraced, constraints are truly the key to unlocking some of your best work.

“Constraints have a Goldilocks quality: too many and you will suffocate in stale thinking, too few and you risk a rambling vision quest.” — Adam Richardson

I got to the point in my creative work where constraints were my crutch—my copout—my excuse. Rookie mistake. But that’s because I realized I could no longer blame it on lack-of-time or my skill level. My inability to “unleash my creativity” was no longer because of a lack of good software, a great computer, quality fonts, etc. Surely it wasn’t me though—it had to be the constraints. I had myself pretty convinced, and was getting halfway decent at convincing others of this too. In one particular instance I had complained enough and annoyed my client enough that they said, “Just do whatever you want. I want you to have complete freedom.” “Yes! Finally this guy gets it,” I thought to myself.

Now, you’re a smart person. You know where this story is going. I’ll cut out the boring part for you. I couldn’t make anything. I mean, I could have made anything, but I couldn’t make anything. I was stuck. I had too much freedom. I needed to create a constraint for myself to even make something. I realized in that project that when anything was possible, I couldn’t focus on what was worth doing. All this time I wanted to make what I wanted to make, but with no problem to solve, I had no place to begin. I was an office stapler trapped in a vat of constraint-free pepto-bismol-esque gelatin with no idea how to get out.

When anything was possible, I couldn’t focus on what was worth doing.

Being the internal processor I am, I had to unearth why I couldn’t get past this wall (plus figuring out why I couldn’t think proved to be a good distraction from thinking). Through all of this, I learned how much I needed constraints. I needed to learn to embrace the constraints, because I most certainly didn’t like the feeling of being lost in a sea of potential. I’ve come to grips with the fact that constraints give me structure. They don’t limit my options. They eliminate a percentage of them.

Now, when I approach a new creative project, I don’t ask for exact direction, nor do I want complete freedom. But I do want at least one constraint. It has to be square, it has to be 2-colors, it can’t use a gradients; it has to look photo-real, no straight lines, etc. Any one of these is a great place to start, because it eliminates options. Now you know it can’t be circular, it can’t be 4-colors, it has to be flat-ish, and can’t look like a cartoon. My ideal direction would be 90% of my options are eliminated, and I get to laser focus in on that 10% that’s left and begging to be made amazing.

We’re truly at our best when we are told what our box is, we understand the limitations, and then make the effort to push the walls out.

As designers we don’t like to be put in a box. We often feel we’re at our best when we’re free to think outside the box. However, we’re truly at our best when we are told what our box is, we understand the limitations, and then make the effort to push the walls out. Often the best idea is there within the limits, but in an undiscovered corner you didn’t see when you first looked at it. The more you learn to problem solve this way, the more valuable of a designer, creative, and problem solver you become. It’s what made MacGyver the man. It’s how Bear Grylls survives. It’s why we all wish we were great iPhone photographers. It’s what made Thomas Edison a success. And it’s even why we are so amazed by the creativity and constant technological innovation of Pixar. These people know what it’s like to make the absolute most out of working within extreme limitations.

Embrace constraints, explore the vast-potential within the 10% of your project you have creative control over. Discover your creative box. Learn its limits. And push the walls out. This truly is the secret to your greatest, smartest, and most creative work yet.