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Make Constraints Your Canvas

21 minutes, 22 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

In The Craftsman, author Richard Sennett tells the story of two houses. The first is the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who financed the design and construction of his house with his virtually limitless family fortune. He set out with his eye on perfection, eager to build the prototype of “the foundations of all possible buildings.” His integrity could spare no expense. Stuart Jeffries writes in the Guardian, “When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30 mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed.”

Figure: Villa Müller by Adolf Loos in Prague-Střešovice, Czech Republic. Credit: Miaow Miaow, Wikimedia Commons.

One of Wittgenstein’s mentors and friends, the more senior Adolf Loos, had a smaller purse to draw from. When the foundations of his Villa Müller were set differently from the plan, he thickened a side wall to accommodate the change. His two choices were to adapt or to give up on the building.

Loos’s Villa Müller was built on necessity and constraint, twin mischiefs that drained it of all potential for perfection. Sennett writes, “The formally pure properties of the [Villa Müller] were achieved by working with many similar mistakes and impediments Loos had to take as facts on the ground; necessity stimulated his sense of form.” Villa Müller has remained a cultural icon through the decades. In the late 90s, the Prague government invested a million dollars into restoring it to its original form.

But after Wittgenstein’s house was complete, he called his own creation “sickened.” He is quoted saying, “But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open―that is lacking. And so you could say it isn’t healthy.” His sister Gretl’s nephew sold the house on the grounds that she never liked it. Wittgenstein’s other sister, Hermine, confessed to not wanting to live in it. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s obsession with perfection bore rotten fruit.

Creativity comes from chaotic energy. But left unchecked, the chaotic energy is a breeding ground for obsession, fixation, and compulsiveness. Constraints provide the structure that creativity needs in order to come into the real world. Think back to Professor Betty Flowers’s image of the madman—chaotic energy—and the judge—structure. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy of a similar blend of halves to achieve balance: the Dionysian extremes of emotion, instinct, and spontaneity, and the Apollonian rationality, order, and reason.

In Wittgenstein’s case, his practically infinite capabilities overcame his sense of constraints, allowing his chaotic side to run wild, unchecked by any realistic force except gravity, throwing the halves out of balance. Even though giving in to chaotic energy might feel good, it doesn’t necessarily make for better final work.

“Your creativity needs enough structure to support your freedom, but not so much that your freedom feels stifled,” says Lindsay Jean Thomson. The ideal balance is different for everyone, and it also changes with time. These prompts will support you in finding the constraints that work for you, right now.

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Select One Tool

Professor, author, and human-technology researcher Sherry Turkle suggests in The Empathy Diaries, “To be good at a job, you had to love the objects associated with that job.” This can also apply to your chosen creative operation. Finding an object that sparks joy could change how you operate.

For example, Big Mike’s current journey with painting started off with a canvas he found across the street from his workplace. Even if this lucky event hadn’t happened, I can imagine him buying a canvas and paints and getting started painting the same day. He didn’t let himself get stuck figuring out which paints were best, which brush to use, where he could work. His method, in his own words, is simple: “Put the paint on the canvas!”

Choosing a tool provides you with a clear idea of what you will be doing. You paint with a paintbrush. You draw or write with a pencil. Commit to this tool for a set amount of time—maybe 10 days—just enough time to see what you can do with it but not so much that you get bored.

Don’t overthink the tool just yet. Start with the simplest version of the tool, the one you already have lying around, and figure out what you need out of it along the way. As Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly writes, “Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.”

Set a Time Limit

In 2018, the average Instagram user on Android spent 53 minutes a day on Instagram. Over the course of the year, that’s 322 hours, the equivalent of over eight full 40-hour work weeks.

Imagine what you could create with 53 minutes a day! (Especially if you’re reclaiming that time from Instagram.) Even five minutes will move you further along your creative path than no minutes at all. You can begin to reclaim time for creative work by setting yourself a manageable limit.

You can use a technique called timeboxing, which means giving yourself a set amount of time to do one thing. One of my favorite devices is the kitchen timer. I’ve bought maybe a dozen of these in my life so far, and I plan to buy dozens more. I set the timer for a few minutes—for a short workout, for a sprint through really boring paperwork, or to get started on a big creative project—and then I press start. I give myself a window to work through. After that, I can choose to stop, and sometimes I do. But many other times, I keep going.

In the professional world, a popular productivity strategy is the Pomodoro method: set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted time to complete a task, take a five-minute break, then start the timer again. After three of these 25 minute sessions, the person takes a longer 30-minute break.

A deadline is a variation of this time constraint. In her memoir Bossypants, producer and actor Tina Fey quotes Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” You can set a deadline and timed event to happen regularly: “Every day when I wake up, I’m going to take two minutes and write a note.” You might also challenge yourself to make something whenever you have idle time, like when you’re waiting for a bus or during commercial breaks. You won’t find inspiration by waiting for it; you’ll need to put the work in to uncover it. And you don’t only do creative work when you’re inspired, you do it because it’s on your schedule to do it.

Commit to a Size

The two most common dimensions we’re constrained by are space and time. If setting a time limit is timeboxing, then perhaps the space-analogous exercise can be called sizeboxing. You pick a limited size for your work and work within that.

If you’re recording music, scale down by committing to recording a song with only two instruments if you usually use more; or if you want to produce a lot of ideas, commit to writing thirty-second melodies for one week.

If you’re working with paint, choose a surface with dimensions no more than four inches by four inches.

If you’re programming, restrict yourself to a set number of lines of code or a specific memory size. (Sizecoding might be an inspiration.)

Another version of this is filling out three pages of writing in a notebook. (If you do this without stopping, that’s what teacher, artist, and author Julia Cameron calls the morning pages.)

The less time you have, the smaller a size—or the fewer the elements—that you may want to go with.

Do Your Work without Your Equipment

While most of the prompts in this book involve getting ideas out of your head and into the world by taking action, and creating ideas through action, this prompt is about working on an idea in your head and leaving your studio, laptop, or gear bag behind. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

These connections come from many sources, including what you see and experience. Photographer Ivan Chow leaves the house without his camera to practice his observation skills. He says, “By taking away the need to make photos, you’re relieving yourself of that pressure to deliver. This will allow your mind to focus solely on spotting moments that are worthy of capturing. You’ll get less caught up with what’s directly in front of you and you’ll start looking a bit further to spot potential subjects and points of interest. Being a good street photographer is all about being good at observing, and that means that you already have a very good head start.”

If your chosen creative operation is photography, you might choose to take a moment out of each day to observe a location or scene that would make for an interesting photograph. What makes it stand out to you? How can you return and recreate the moment, or would it be worth capturing in different lighting conditions? If it’s music, take a long walk and play with a melody in your head—when you take away the option of recording an idea right away, you’re forced to work with the raw materials in real time, which can lead to many surprising developments.

Working without equipment can also help us stay connected to our creativity when we can’t access resources. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter memorized lyrics during the early moments of his career, as he writes in a piece for Vibe. “When my thoughts began to crowd each other, I would go to the corner store, get a pen, and empty my head, pouring rhymes onto pieces of paper bags. But how many scraps can you fit in your pocket? I had to start memorizing my ideas until I got home, which was usually in the wee hours of the morning. Ironically, using memorization to hold on to my lines is the way I developed the writing style I use today. No pen, paper, or paper bags needed. Just point out the track and I’m all over it.”

This is what Michael Saviello says of his process: “I do a painting in a short amount of time, but I think about it 24 hours.” Saviello paints from still images, so this is a natural part of his process; he might have an image in mind but change the background or other elements. You can work mentally—consider different variations of your final product and change the structure, or the order, and imagine how it turns out. This helps to keep ideas accessible in your conscious mind, and to let the unconscious side of your brain work on them.

But whatever you come up with in that great brain of yours, don’t forget to record it, write it down, etc. As Jay-Z acknowledged about his early, equipment-less process to NPR, “I’ve lost plenty of material. It’s not the best way. I wouldn’t advise it to anyone. I’ve lost a couple albums’ worth of great material. … Think about when you can’t remember a word and it drives you crazy. So imagine forgetting an entire rhyme. ‘What’s that? I said I was the greatest something?’”

Or flip this prompt: Make Idle Time

Set a 10-Day Quota

The mystique of art and creativity shines a spotlight on inspiration and creative breakthroughs. A practitioner will speak more of the power of repetition, routine, and tangible deliverables.

This is a priceless lesson that many people have paid thousands of dollars in tuition to learn. As I share in Source Inspiration, graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut assigned a project to his students: pick an activity and commit to doing it for 100 days in a row. Bierut recalls his instructions: “The only restrictions on the operation you choose is that it must be repeated in some form every day, and that every iteration must be documented for eventual presentation.” Bierut would repeat this project in each class in the following years. One student chose to dance every day, another chose to make a poster in under 60 seconds each day, and still another made a different version of the same poster each day.

This is a reliable way to gain experience, improve your skills, and build discipline. Lindsay Jean Thomson, who facilitates the 100 Day Project, an online project inspired by Bierut’s class, told me in an interview that there is a noticeable improvement in how the projects turn out from day one to day 100. “If you sit down and do something every day, you will get better at it,” she says.

One hundred days can sound like too much of a commitment, so I suggest starting with 10. If you feel on day 10 that it’s manageable, then continue to day 100.

You have innate discipline; it might just be asleep. The daily quota will cultivate this discipline, channeling it into your creative work, until it’s strong enough to take over and it becomes a part of who you are.

For added accountability, participants in the 100 Day Project need to share their progress every day on Instagram, and Bierut’s students presented their project at the end of the 100 days. To keep yourself accountable, I’d recommend doing the same form of public documentation during this 10-day project. If you find that the work isn’t ready for you to show to all of your followers yet, find a friend or classmate who might want to share their own 10-day project with you. Now you have an accountability partner.

The beauty of this exercise is that it also encourages you to find idle time and space in your day for your creative work, helping you form creative habits that will last well after this 10- or 100-day project is complete.

Or flip this prompt: Do the Opposite

Choose Analog

Before he became the Grammy-winning DJ Dahi, Dacoury Natche used to play, practice, and experiment with instruments. It was how he became a musician. As he gained success in his industry, more and more of his work was done on a computer. “So much of what I was doing just felt rigid because I’m stuck within a screen,” said Natche. As a response, he remembered what he temporarily forgot—that he used to make music outside of his screen, with instruments.

Using only analog equipment—nothing connected to the internet—practice your craft. Make something. Going back to basics can be a great way to revisit why you chose this work in the first place, as Natche describes. It’s a chance for us to let go of the constraints and systems we need in order to work with technology, and to remember the simplest elements of the craft.

Complete Your Operation in Seconds

Social scientist B.J. Fogg’s Behavioral Model tells us that the more ability a task requires, the more motivation it will also require. That idea can certainly apply to creative work, which is why these prompts require minimal ability and time. This insight is key to creating habits and tapping into your discipline.

Vin Verma, who goes by the name Internetvin, has made music and written code every day for a year. One of his techniques is to find a way to create music or code in 20 seconds (writing just a single line of code on the days he didn’t have time or felt tired).

If you’re making music, your tactic could be to record a 10-second voice note of a new melody, or to write one bad line of a song lyric.

If you’re working in photography, take a still life of an object within arm’s reach.

If you’re writing, write one bad sentence.

The goal here is to simplify your creative operation, moving the starting point to the finish point much closer together—mere seconds apart.

While 20 seconds is an aspirational goal, realistically it may take at least a minute to complete the simplest version of your creative operation. If you’re writing every day, let it take a minute to write a sentence. Or if you’re drawing daily, then a minute enables you to quickly sketch something simple.

This prompt can also stack up well with setting a 10-day quota. For example, I wrote a constrained comic for ten days, which consisted of one drawing and four panels. On the first day, I spent no more than an hour drawing the character and duplicating it across four panels. The next nine days, I simply copied the panels and changed the dialogue. Here’s what one of them looks like:

Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, has made an original illustration every day for over a decade. He ordinarily spends a couple of hours each day, but he still spent a few minutes on the days he had food poisoning and even on the day his child was born.

Life gets busy sometimes. The trick is to find ways to keep the habit going in a matter of seconds or minutes. On days where you have little time to spare, this short, small, variation will make sure you keep progressing.

Never Run Out of Ideas25 minutes, 25 links

It’s tempting to believe that “ideas” are what you wait for, sitting quietly until inspiration strikes. Ideas can come down on us in this way, but more commonly, creators and artists cultivate their own inspiration by recording as many possibilities as they can come up with, generating their own idea momentum.

Not every idea has to be good—some ideas will be horrendous. But the consistent work of generating ideas, good or bad, relevant or not, is what matters in developing creative thinking. The point is to discover just how possible it is to make ideas every day, not just “have” them whenever the gods decide.

Creating acceptable ideas is a strategy that professor and author Dean Keith Simonton recommends. He writes in The Genius Checklist how the more attempts an artist or craftsperson makes, the more major works (or “hits”) they create. As a general rule, Simonton suggests that mass production of these ideas is a safer approach than focusing on a single idea and trying to make it perfect.

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