Creatively Stuck? Add Constraints

by | Aug 26, 2022

Here’s a fun experiment: tap the rhythm to happy birthday and ask someone to guess the song. Want to know the likelihood that they’re going to guess it right? A stunningly low 2.5%. This simple experiment, first performed in 1990 by Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton, illustrates the difference between the novice and the expert.

The novice has zero frame of reference, whereas the expert can’t not hear, “Happy birthday to you.” This might explain why some of your worst professors were paradoxically also celebrated experts in their field. Their curse of knowledge, as coined by Chip and Dan Heath authors of Made to Stick, prevented them from connecting with you at your beginner level.

Perhaps your own curse of knowledge has negatively impacted one of your own lessons. I know it has for me.

I’m a naturally creative person, and for over 30+ years, I’ve been flexing that muscle. Give me a paint brush, I’m going to paint a picture. Hand me a tuba, I’m going to purse my lips and blow into that thing. Ask me to write a soliloquy, I’m going to grab a dictionary, look up that word, and start punching the keys.

But not all of my students are creative, and none of them have been creative for as long as me.

When I’ve assign open ended, “creative” projects in my Digital Graphic Design classes, I’ve frequently been met with blank stares and students not even knowing where to begin.

This used to baffle me. The asset libraries I included in the directions have 1,000,000s of images to choose from. There are countless tools in the toolbar just waiting to be clicked upon, each with innumerable settings to select. Every color under the rainbow is just waiting to be added to the canvas. How were my students possibly not diving in and making digital magic?

With so many options to choose, and possibilities at their fingertips my students became paralyzed by all of the potential options. This paradox of choice led many to inaction, frustration, and uninspired work.

So what’s the solution?

For me, I’ve scaled back and requested more concrete deliverables that my young graphic designers could fully conceive of and formulate a path towards achieving.

By adding constraints, in terms of what I asked them to do, the world of possibilities started to open up. Instead of, “Use the next 20 minutes to make an original design,” I go with “Find an asset with which you can artificially add illumination using blend mode techniques.”

Within the limitations I set, their creative engines start to rev. And you know what? Often, once they’ve started, they go beyond my limited request, start exploring what’s possible, push the boundaries, and get lost in their creative endeavor.



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