How Limits Boost Creativity

As a sophomore in college, I applied for and was accepted to a new graphic design program at a large state university. Hundreds applied, only 15-20 were accepted, so I was feeling pretty much like a hot shot. Our first class met in a little room off of an art computer lab. There were about eight of us, all fidgety to show off our talents and see how we measured up to the rest of the prodigies that were circled around the table. We had visions of elaborate layouts, distressed type and graffiti dancing in our heads. We were already intimidated, but it got a whole lot worse.

We watched a movie.

It was Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. It's a haunting, dreamlike movie with three intertwined stories of foreigners traveling through Memphis, Tennessee.

Our first assignment: design a poster for the movie. These were the rules:

  • One color
  • One typeface: Univers 55, the most basic font in existence
  • 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper

Terror set in.

No fancy fonts?! No groovy Photoshop techniques?! No images?! Sketching by hand? We were forced to strip away our notions of design down to the very core. We couldn't let the computer do the heavy lifting for us; in fact we had to do the mock ups by hand, just old-fashioned scissors and glue. 

The resulting poster may be, to this day, one of my favorite creations. (Sadly it's on a zip disk that my computer can't read somewhere in an attic box.) My brain, after going through some computer withdrawal, figured out how to create rhythm by simple repetitions of letters using different weights of Univers (bold, light, ultra light). I learned that a grid was my friend and that sketching first (before jumping to the computer) opened up entire vistas of possibilities that I wouldn't have thought to try.

Then I became a writer.

The lesson stuck, but what does it mean to me now?

  • Build on one good idea. All the bells and whistles in the world won't help your product/essay/movie poster if the basic, underlying concepts aren't compelling.
  • Choose just one message. In my poster, I focused on the simple visual rhythm of a train going over tracks. If I'd tried to convey rhythm, and color and Memphis and Japanese tourists all at once, none would have come through.
  • Your brain is connected to your hands and vice versa. Try writing a blog post or a chunk of eBook in your notebook first, roughing out a general idea before you take it onto the computer. You might be surprised how much more fluids your thoughts become.
  • You don't have to be 'loud' to get attention. Up to that point in my life I thought exciting design meant a lot of cool, flashy fonts. In this day and age when it seems everyone is trying to get our attention, small and quiet might stand out the most.

Just Begin

That moment in my first design class taught me that you need almost nothing to begin to create — it's all waiting there in your wonderful brain. The tools you use are incidental.

I hope this demonstrates how seemingly impossible or confining limitations provide a challenge — a way to unlock creativity, not to suppress it. They can focus creative energy into a narrow channel in such a way that strengthens its impact. It's my hope that all of our messages are strong and clear, travel far and wide, even if right now they just exist as scribbles on notebook paper.