Why restrictions in creative fields are a good thing, and how to embrace them

As creative professionals, most of us share the dream of having complete creative freedom, and admire those who are lucky enough to achieve this. We abhor any kind of restriction on our sacred creative mind-space and look forward to a day when all the world relishes our work and appreciates our artistic prowess. Or something like that.

But if you’ve ever seen a kid walk into a mega toy store, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that there is such a thing as too much freedom. Too many options can be overwhelming, because there’s no obvious entry point.

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If we follow this hypothetical child into the toy store, we’ll see that they need to really hone in on one section of the store – a particular aisle or display – before they can focus their attention on any of the toys. With a barrage of options hitting them all at once, it’s down to the kid to start making fast decisions about restricting the options before they can enjoy the freedom of browsing: which aisle to go down, which section to start in, where are the Legos and where are the boardgames?

As soon as they make the decision to restrict themselves (at least temporarily) to one aisle, or one section of the store, they can take in and process the information hitting them from that one area and make decisions about whether those toys are enticing or not.

Similarly, restrictions on our creative process can actually be useful, if we use them to our advantage.

Budget

Having a tight budget for a project is never fun. Especially once you start playing with bigger and bigger budgets, and you see how much flexibility that extra cash flow can provide. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though.

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Having a small budget will put restraints on what you can achieve within the project, which can be a good thing. There will be some ideas that you simply won’t be able to attempt without the extra cash. While this may seem frustrating, it will immediately limit you, giving you a smaller pool (or a smaller toy store, if you like) to choose from. The smaller the selection, the more quickly you can focus and start examining what you can work with.

The other option is to try executing those big ideas in cheaper ways. This can really work your brain and help you to flex that creative muscle that everyone so admires in you.

Of course, you may just go for a new idea that does fit into your budget. Being restricted can sometimes push you towards new concepts or methods that you wouldn’t have considered using otherwise.

Space

Space, like money, is a hot commodity. Getting enough space to be comfortable and make your best work is not always possible. It may be that you’re designing a website or poster that’s smaller than you would like, or it could actually be your working space that’s limited. Either way, you can use this to bring out your creative problem-solving skills.

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Limited space means you will be forced into using what you have even more carefully. You know how it goes – anything that’s rare and in demand immediately becomes more precious. Having to use your space more wisely will mean that you cut back on anything superfluous. It’s often hard to recognize what’s truly needed and what’s just clutter, until you’re forced to cut things out.

Limiting what you can include will push you to re-evaluate what design elements you need, or what tools are really important to include on your workspace. You’ll see the value in what you need to keep, and realize how much perceived value you placed on things that didn’t actually need to be there.

Time

Cutting back on the time you have available for a project is probably the scariest thing. Cut back on space, give me a small budget – sure. But squeeze it into a shorter timeframe? Panic mode.

Lack of time doesn’t have to elicit fear and cold sweats on the high brow of your creative mind, however. It’s just like cutting back on space in some ways – it forces you to cut out extra superfluous details and distractions. It makes you value what time you have, and take a hard look at what’s really important for your project.

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Having little time also means you’ll lean towards a more simple process or minimal design, naturally. Even if this isn’t generally your style, it can be a good thing to explore a pared-down version of what you normally do, just for a change.

Focus

Creativity is a fickle thing. It’s difficult to pin down sometimes, even when you know it’s there. The cool thing about restrictions is that they help you to focus and draw out creative ideas.

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If you begin a project with a particular industry, target market or topic in mind, you’ll have a springboard to bounce off. Having a starting point can open up new ideas and expand your creativity in other areas, rather than holding you back. It’s kind of like how losing one sense, like sight or hearing, heightens your other senses. The potential for those senses to be heightened has always been there, but it takes a restriction in another area to push them that far.

The same goes for your creative work. If you’re restricted in one sense, this will push your creativity further in other ways.

Go get restricted

So give it a go.

Embrace the restrictions your client places on your project, or give yourself some restrictions.

Push yourself to work with them, rather than against them, and pay attention to the difference it makes to your approach and the way that you work. You may be surprised.