Let’s Talk About: Constraints

The past year has made us understand the meaning of ‘constraints.’ It makes us realise that it’s possible to do things in a smarter way if we were given less choices, and limited resources. 

‘Constraints’ are good

It’s true that ‘constraints’ are inherently ‘limiting’. The dictionary definitions of the word often carry a negative connotation. But time and time again it proves that it can be a driving force of great ideas.

The pandemic has set out new boundaries to how we live, work and play. But Creativity thrives best when constrained. Not only that, the results are not just the product of some unbridled, unguided efforts that lead to beautiful effects, but creations with a clear and defined purpose and message. They turned limitations into opportunities:

Apple produced the brand message ‘Creativity Goes On’ over the course of two weeks at the beginning of the lockdown in 2020, capturing how people kept creativity alive under restricted circumstance.

Selfridges turned its London flagship store windows into a gallery. Staging ‘A Return to Nature’ – a joint outdoor show by photographers Marco Kesseler and Cameron Bensley. Concurrently available to view online, the exhibition offers people a chance to embrace the great outdoors while the city remains in lockdown.

Artist Grayson Perry and his wife Philippa created ‘Grayson’s Art Club’, a documentary on Channel 4 that curated artworks and creations from the public, with selected works forming a group show to be exhibited at the Manchester Art Gallery. It has fundamentally redefined how artworks are created, curated and showcased.

Constraints provide focus

A tight brief is a form of ‘constraint’. A brand’s universal message described in 25 words gives more focus and clarity than one written in three paragraphs. Defining and creating boundaries is an important starting point of creativity.

Creative legend John Hegarty famously loves to always start an idea thinking as if it’s designed for the size of a poster. Ideally with just 5 words.

The truth is: a well written tight brief doesn’t hold us back. It can shape and focus problems and provide us clear challenges to overcome.

Decoding, deep diving into the confined space creates opportunities for us to reframe the problem, opening up the mind to change, seeing things from a different angle and building new territories.

Exercise: Confined Creativity

In the following grid of 30 identical squares, try to fill each of the squares in a different way. You could keep within the confinement by using different patterns. You could also transform it into something else by adding elements to it. Move to the next one only when you are satisfied with the result. Set yourself a time limit, say 3 minutes, and see how many squares you can complete.


  • The square represents the defined universal truth of your brand. How you build on it is limitless. 
  • You can be most inventive when you are under certain constrain or pressure
  • There’s no single ‘correct’ answer to a problem
  • Even if the message stays the same, the expressions don’t have to. A shift in context may also shift the way you think.