{ Romantics, Read This } The Road to Creativity Requires a Map

I’ve been writing lately about tactics for circumventing creative block that deliberately constrain creative freedom. (Catch up on those posts here and here.)

It’s true that these tactics do not conform to romantic notions of creativity, but that’s OK — because they work.

Sometimes the pressure to create has the effect of cognitive blinders, preventing fruitful possibilities from entering our awareness. What happens? It’s as though the need to “perform” creatively, on command, transmogrifies by stealth into a mindset riddled by No’s — No, that won’t work… No, that would be dumb… No, that makes no sense…

This clamping down of the imagination often happens without our even realizing it, cutting off vast creative possibilities.

Swiss designer Karl Gerstner, a student at the renowned Basel School of Design in the early 1950s, responded to this vexing phenomenon through an embrace of programmed constraint. In Designing Programmes, his 1964 book that quickly became a classic among Swiss modernist designers (think Helvetica and adherence to visual grid systems), Gerstner advocated creative decisions reached not by “feeling” but by the systematic application of “intellectual criteria”:

Designing means: to pick out determining elements and combine them. Seen in these terms, designing calls for method. The most suitable I know is the [morphological box] Fritz Zwicky has developed, although actually his is intended for scientists rather than designers. The creative process is to be reduced to an act of selection.

If you’re inclined to romantic notions of creativity, you might want to sit with that last sentence for a minute.

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Gerstner developed the “morphological box of the typogram” is a matrix of criteria by which a designer can methodically develop a type-driven logo.




Gerstner’s logo for Intermöbel is an expression of the thirteen red-shaded criteria in this morphological box. Notably, Gerstner acknowledged that not all of the criteria were central to the final solution: “Only two [criteria] are actually decisive… Combined Values [Shades] and Something Replaced.”

Gerstner’s hyper-logical methodology reveals a modernist taste for rationality. Yet he acknowledges another rationale for this morphological approach: conserving creative energy.

The programme is not a replacement for creativity… Once a designer generates a version that has something interesting about it… they can then focus on refining that idea. The programme allows the designer to expend their creative energy on the refinement of a good idea instead of a large number of ideas that may not address the problem.

Without directly addressing the psychological factors that can thwart creativity, Gerstner uses constraints preventatively to optimize design practice.

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The constraint-driven tactics I’ve been sharing fly in the face of romantic notions of what it means to create. And that’s very much the point. Whether by human programming, oblique strategies, or ‘designing programmes,’ these strategies get us out of our own way.

Or, more precisely: they suspend that reflexive but maladaptive response to creative pressure — our capacity to talk ourselves out of our own ideas — and provide a clear road map for action.

Karl Gerstner, “Designing Programmes” in Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, Helen Armstrong, Ed. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 58.
Bryan Kulba, “Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes” (PDF)
Bryan Kulba, “Celebrating Karl Gerstner



One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I agree – it is time to dismantle the romantic notion of creativity. To witness anyone in the middle of a creative process may seem like magic but it’s execution is based on amassed knowledge, filtered through culture and personal beliefs. This is as true of the artist and designer as it is of the scientist or engineer.

    While working within constraints has value, and a place in the process, I embrace the willingness to step outside the lines. I know of no other path to expanding knowledge and possibility. The ability to risk is informed by a familiarity with the tools and a keen grasp of what has gone before.

    Creating cracks in our perception may or may not be an expression of creative genius but one thing is certain: the impetus grows from skills and knowledge, not divine intervention. There is no curtain or Oz, just years of practice and sharpening one’s perception through analytical thought. As a designer I always say my role is to solve problems and in that role my ‘feelings’ don’t have a place at the table.

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