Steve Peters

Experience Design

Does Creativity Really Love Constraints??

Another post on the topic of Creative-types vs. Corporate-types (hmm, am I seeing a trend here?) I was recently passed a Business Week article entitled Creativity Loves Constraints (links to cached article...thanks, Google!) by Marissa Ann Mayer, a VP at Google. I gotta say, while I really like certain things about Google and the way they run things, I really don't agree with what this article is saying at all. I think this is, generally speaking, a prime example of how a corporate-type misses it entirely, as far as creativity goes. Of course, this is, after all, an article in Business Week, so this shouldn't really come as a surprise, should it? :) The gist of the article is this: Creativity thrives when it has very tight guardrails. Things get done more quickly and more efficiently because the creative team doesn't wander off the road. "Constraints can actually speed development....The strategy of limiting the time we have to prove that an idea works allows us to try out more ideas, increasing our odds of success." Hmm......success. What is the measure of success for her? I'm thinking it's not necessarily the same as that of the creative team under her.

Maybe Ms. Mayer is confusing constraints with focus, or perhaps even proven form. I submit that creativity hates constraints, absolutely loathes them. One of my rules for a brainstorming meeting is that the participants are to be creative first, editors later. No constraints, nobody saying "Wait, we can't afford that!" or "That's a stupid idea." The synergy of getting a few people in the room who are good at letting ideas fly, bouncing them off of each other, will lead to things not one single person could have necessarily come up with on his/her own. Bad or "impossible" ideas very often lead to great ones.

Constraints also very often take the form of deadlines. As someone who thrives under deadlines, I can say that I see the value of this, but I don't feel my creativity loves it. While I take pride in meeting deadlines, I can definitely say that, in the case of ultra-short timeframes to get something done, my work would have been much better had I been given an adequate amount of time in which to complete it. To say that my creativity loved that constraint is just plain wrong. Unless of course you're the corporate guy over the fence yelling at the cows.

Now sure, you could take this to the extreme and say that Mozart loved the fact that he only had a certain set of musical instruments to write for, and didn't have to bog himself down by inventing new instruments from scratch. Every artistic medium has a certain set of global tools and proven forms to work within, but I wouldn't necessarily call them constraints. You can usually always work outside whatever box you're given should you choose to (look at John Cage).

Now, granted, this article does seem to try to temper things, almost wanting to have it both ways: "...Constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible." "...Constraints alone can stifle and kill creativity." To me, the whole article just seems to be an attempt to justify keeping the reigns on creativity to preserve the bottom line, which is an idea I can appreicate, don't get me wrong. Reality wins, budgets are budgets, etc. But to say that creativity loves these constraints is just taking it way too far.

Finally, the article sums it all up this way: "Innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision." Hmm, that sounds a lot like spin to me. I'd put it this way: "True innovation is born from vision and creative thought, overcoming any constraints it may face along the way."

So, does creativity love constraints, or do corporate-types love to put constraints on creativity? You decide. :)