The Beauty of Constraints

Constraints are like a sandbox; they give you a place to practice creativity and master new skills without overwhelming you with choices.

Last week I wrote about my process for creating a five-minute talk without slides. This week, I want to take a step back and promote what may be a controversial position among my fellow scientists and engineers: namely, having constraints is a good thing.

I find that constraints — especially around communication — provoke complaints among academics: ten minutes is too short for a talk; four pages isn’t enough room for my white paper; I can’t fit everything on my research poster.

Often these complaints stem from the same fundamental misunderstanding: papers, presentations, posters, and even exams are not a venue for brain dumping every single thing you know about a subject. Instead, each one is about conveying specific information to an audience. In many cases, the audience knows less about the subject than you do, and your task is to inform them. In exams, the audience knows more, but a student’s job still isn’t to dump the entire contents of their brain; it’s to convince the examiners — ideally through a well-organized and cogent presentation of information — that they, the student, have an appropriate level of mastery.

In each of these situations, the constraints are meant to guide communicators and prevent the dreaded brain dump. But constraints can do so much more!

Constraints, Creativity, and Mastery

Consider how artists use constraints. In art, constraints are often self-imposed, not just externally enforced. For example, an artist may select a limited palette of colors or tools. Perhaps they are often on the move and need to minimize what they carry. Maybe they want to focus on using the supplies they have on-hand rather than spending money on new ones. For artists, these constraints serve twin purposes: 1) promoting creativity, and 2) deepening mastery.

Using limited tools and/or materials encourages artists to be creative in their choices and explore what they have in unusual ways. Consider Jose Naranja, an artist who travels frequently and constantly fills notebooks with beautiful sketches, illustrations, and observations, using only a handful of pens and pencils and a miniature watercolor palette. His notebooks are so elaborate, creative, and beautiful that he sells facsimiles for readers to enjoy first-hand.

To see what creativity is possible under even more constraints, check out @mgemart_ on Instagram. Her feed is full of beautiful artwork, often made with nothing but a black Micron pen and a notebook. Beyond illustration, artists do incredible work sculpting with paper, blowing glass into unusual shapes, and even embroidering mass-produced foods. Limiting the tools, colors, and materials in no way confines an artist to a handful of set results.

As an interesting aside on constraints and creativity, researchers found that toddlers play longer and more creatively when they have fewer toys to choose from. For both children and adults, constraints limit our choices in a way that frees our imaginations.

Beyond creativity, artists also use constraints to deepen their mastery of key skills. A watercolorist might choose a palette with only six colors to force herself to practice mixing paints. A quilter could select fabrics in grayscale to sharpen his understanding of value and contrast in quiltmaking. As a video maker, I’ve done the same by challenging myself to make videos where I don’t appear onscreen and videos where I explore orange/teal color grading in all of my footage. Were those constraints strictly necessary? No, but they allowed me to practice new and different skills.

But, Nicole, I hear you cry, I’m an engineer, not an artist! Fortunately, constraints benefit creativity and mastery there, too. Consider design competitions like Design/Build/Fly and the Concrete Canoe. Each places constraints on the competitors and challenges participants to work creatively within those bounds.

In his autobiography, aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman notes that constraints made German engineers master optimization in his comparison of early 20th century engineering culture in the United States and Germany:

[American] engineers had no reason to concern themselves with efficient utilization of materials when they were so plentiful. In resource-short Germany, on the other hand, the engineer couldn’t afford waste, and so he was forced to optimize his design, and thus to squeeze from the minimum of material as much useful effect as possible.”

– From The Wind and Beyond by Theodore von Karman and Lee Edson

Clearly, engineers can also build skills and practice their creativity within the bounds of constraints. And the same is true when it comes to communicating that science and engineering. I have seen a researcher use his ten-minute time slot to perform a fluid-dynamics-themed rap. He brought down the house in one of the most memorable conference presentations I’ve ever seen. Another team challenged themselves to depict a flow through dance alone. Science-themed comics are also a popular and creative way to communicate.

But you don’t have to be an artist, musician, or dancer in addition to an engineer to practice your creativity. Shows like the Moth challenge participants to tell their story in a purely auditory manner. Three-Minute Thesis requires Ph.D. students to explain their work to non-specialists in (as the name says) three minutes. And to give an Ignite Talk, you deliver 20 slides in 5 minutes with slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds. With 15 seconds per slide, there’s no room for more than a handful of words, either onscreen or in your mouth. It’s a format that encourages creative, dynamic, and well-rehearsed delivery, and it’s a fabulous option for communicating science in fun, exciting, and accessible ways.

Bottom Line

Working with constraints is bit like sitting down at a sandbox. A few decisions have already been made for you; the sand and tools are there, in a limited supply. But within the bounds of that sandbox, you are free to do whatever you desire. Maybe you’ll build a classic castle. Or you could dig a labyrinth-like maze. Or perhaps you’ll make some trolls to guard your sandbox. The choice is yours. You can chase your creative bug, focus on mastering a new skill, or aim to do both at once.

Next week, I’ll look at constraints in communication a little more concretely and give you a list of questions to consider when tackling a constrained assignment.

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(Image credit: Kaboompics)

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