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Day 18/06/2014

{ Rethinking Creativity } Why are Constraints Freeing?

When you imagine the work life of a great artist or musician, do you picture a person of unbridled creativity? A vessel from which ideas continuously flow?

For many of us, the creative life conjures such images. When we consider creative people from afar, we tend to focus on what they have made — not the process by which they have made it. While we sit over here feeling blocked and uncertain, creative people are over there, idea after idea flowing from their hands and taking shape in the world. For lack of information, it can appear effortless.

But I’ve learned over the past couple of years (to my relief) that even highly productive creative people often feel blocked and uncertain. They are often stuck.

The difference is that they take action, even when they don’t feel like it. Perhaps especially when they don’t feel like it.

While developing my MFA thesis, I researched designers and artists who deliberately use constraints to free up the creative process and increase productivity. That research profoundly shifted my perception of creative people. Now I believe that many (if not most) creative people are creative because they do get stuck — and they develop successful methods for getting unstuck.

I find this idea incredibly liberating: Perhaps the main distinction between creative people and me is not that I get stuck and they don’t. It’s that their methods for getting unstuck really work, and they  faithfully rely on those methods.

Over the next weeks I’ll be sharing some examples of designers and artists who specifically use constraints to sidestep the psychological challenges of creative work — the aforementioned blocks and uncertainty.

rethinked...* logo

“The process is the product,” according to the Amsterdam-based design collective Conditional Design. Conditional Design first came together around a common interest in programming and design processes whose input comes from humans rather than from code. Though they eschew labels such as “generative design” and “code art,” the algorithmic aspect to their work is undeniable. 

The designers create each piece collectively, according to strict rules they have devised for that particular piece, just as in a game. In the Conditional Design methodology, “constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”

In other words, constraints jumpstart the design process by prescribing specific actions. They dramatically reduce the available design methods as well as the different forms the final product can take. And since the experience of the “game” is fun, the process itself becomes a driving motivation. In fact, the group initially developed this methodology as a kind of game night for graphic designers.



A rather simple example of Conditional Design’s work is “Cellular Relationships.” The process involved drawing circles according to the following directions:

  • Draw a cell that intersects one or two cells of another color. 
  • The center point of the cell must be outside the intersected cells. 
  • Find the points where your circle intersects with other cells and connect them with straight lines. 
  • Erase all enclosed cell segments that result from the intersection. 
  • If your cell intersects two cells, draw a baby cell within one of them. 
  • Cells can only be impregnated once. Repeat.




“Drop Fringe Garland Red Green Blue,” a piece commissioned by Items magazine in the Netherlands, was governed by more complex rules.

  • Draw a continuous periodic line from left to right. 
  • The line is defined by its period and its amplitude. 
  • Each period consists of max. 6 line-segments until it repeats. 
  • The line-segments are constructed from: red = diagonal lines;
    green = diagonal lines and vertical/horizontal lines;
    blue = vertical/horizontal lines. 
  • The period of each new line is either the same size, double the size, or half the size of its predecessor. 
  • The amplitude of each line is the same and overlaps half of the previous line. 
  • Color the smallest fields that emerge from intersections. 
  • Repeat.

The collective developed this process-based design tactic for practical reasons as well.

After writing our [Conditional Design] manifesto, we decided to use these evenings to create work. Through these workshops we could define better what we were trying to talk about. Every week one of us have to come up with an idea, and then within that evening we had to do it. We built a system where we could document it easily and present it to the outside world directly [i.e., photographs shot from above]. 

Not every result was a success. But in the aggregate, the methodology yielded a compelling body of work.

Both the failures and successes of the evenings were sent to the outside world. It was difficult to keep this going… 

Quickly after starting the workshops, we began getting questions about exhibitions. Somehow we started becoming professional with the space, which was meant to be an amateur place where we could just play around. We are trying to find a balance right now. 

To me, what’s remarkable about the CD methodology is that it seems to harness intrinsic motivation, if unconsciously. In other words, the collective credits “human programming” as the inspiration for Conditional Design, yet it developed a tactic that it continues to pursue for its own intrinsic delight.

In that light, it’s not surprising to learn that CD’s casual “game night” tactic yielded lucrative work after the group developed and reified the tactic as “conditional design.”

Today, the collective has published a book on this methodology and is regularly invited to hold workshops at design schools and companies. By honing a process so deliberately — and documenting it — they transformed process into product.


The use of constraints in creative practice is a powerful reminder that
what distinguishes creative people is not having creative ideas. It is taking action upon having a creative idea.

Constraints make taking action easier. And in the case of Conditional Design, they are the creative idea and the action rolled into one.

Source: Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

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