Why placing limitations on yourself is the key to creativity

Jessica Walsh, Paula Scher, Phil Hansen and Erik Johansson tell us how limits, rules and guidelines can help drive creativity.

During my time at the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles last week, many of the leading creatives I spoke to and saw give talks on stage discussed the much-quoted design philosophy that limitations, rules and constraints can benefit your creativity, rather than constrict it. But what’s the best way to approach those limitations, how do you deal with projects without set boundaries (the classic open brief), what do you do if you don’t like rules – and what do you do if constraints are forced upon you by circumstance rather than clients?

Phil Hansen, an American multimedia artist who captivated the audience with his story during his talk, focused his entire presentation on the idea that limitation is the key to creativity.

Phil developed a shake in his hand after years of pursuing pointillism, which made it difficult to create art in the way he loved. “After years of perfecting dots, I couldn't imagine any other way, so I left art school and then I left art completely,” he said.

When his doctor told him that he had permanent nerve damage, Phil was devastated, but the doctor suggested that perhaps Phil could “embrace the shake.”

And so he did, and he realised that he could still make art, just in a different way to the way he originally wanted. Phil still enjoyed the fragmentation of pointillism, so he experimented with different ways of creating fragmented images, such as using only his feet, or a blowtorch to create his work. This helped him discover that: “embracing limitation can actually drive creativity.”

With this new discovery and his first pay cheque in his wallet, Phil went to the shops to buy a selection of art supplies, ready to sit down and create something new with them. However, Phil found himself sitting there for hours. “I was creatively blank,” he said. “I was paralysed by all the choices that I never had before.”

“It was then that I thought back to this limitation of my jittery hand,” Phil continued. “I realised, if I ever wanted my creativity back, I had to quit trying so hard to look outside of the box, and get back into it.”

“I wondered, could you become more creative by looking for limitations?”

With this in mind, Phil decided to try limiting himself to just one dollar's worth of art supplies to create his next piece of art. He got 50 free paper cups from Starbucks, and used the pencils he already had to create a piece of art (below) makewa.

“We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” Phil told the audience.

So, Phil continued to limit himself: “What if, instead of painting with a brush, I could only paint using Karate chops.”

“What if, instead of making art to display, I had to destroy it.” This idea became the basis of his Goodbye Art project, which consists of 23 different pieces.

“What I thought would be the ultimate limitation turned out to be the ultimate liberation, as each time I created, the destruction brought be back to a neutral place, where I felt ready to start the next project,” Phil explained.

“Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves, and collectively, transform our world,” Phil concluded. “Looking at limitations as a source of creativity changed the course of my life.”

Jessica Walsh makes up her own rules

Phil Hansen is not alone with his idea that limitations can pave the way to creativity.

Sagmeister & Walsh's Jessica Walsh, a designer, illustrator and art director from New York City, also spoke about limitations.

“You would think that having no constraints would be a dream, but in reality, it's much harder to come up with a solution when there are no boundaries or guidelines,” she explained. “I think creativity thrives off constraints. When I have limitations, it does make it much better.\

“When I'm given open briefs, I end up making my own constraints and rules up, so that it can help guide me to my concept.”

An example is her work for Aishti and Aizone, high-end department stores in the Middle East. The clients gave Sagmeister & Walsh complete creative freedom, so Jessica set herself personal rules for the campaigns.


For Aishti's advertising campaign, Sagmeister & Walsh stuck to the rule that they could do any design as long as it contained an image of Aishti's well-known orange gift box.

For Aizone, the rule was that the design had to be black and white, which then adapted into black and white messages painted onto the body for the second season of the campaign, and for the third, they decided to scrap the black and white theme but stick with the messages.


You can read our interview with Jessica, in which she talks about upcoming projects, favourite designs and 'that' photo, here.

Paula Scher pushes the boundaries of the brief

Also speaking at Adobe Max last week was graphic designer’s graphic designer, Pentragram’s Paula Scher. Paula showcased some of her work to the audience, describing the creative process behind each piece.

“I get asked to define how I think the creative process works, which is strange because it's always very mystifying,” she said. “What I think it is, for me, is a series of moments where I'm misbehaving. It's usually some push back or rebellion against something I find dumb. It's always an opposition to something.”

Paula used a current project in Staten Island, New York, as an example of how, while rules by themselves don’t help her creative process – “rules prevent bad things from happening, but they don't really promote good things,” she says – the action of kicking against them can draw out ideas for her.

The project is for signage set to grace the sides of a series of buildings that will make up a shopping centre. City ordinance on signage for buildings of that size say you can have just 500 square feet of electronic signage, which would mean little squares of signage that are not particularly interesting, Paula explained.

To get around the problem, Paula proposed the idea of a series of LED strips, evenly spaced across the buildings that display the names of companies that will sell their goods inside the shopping centre. In total, those strips add up to 499 square feet.

Erik Johansson denies himself digital tools

Erik Johansson, a photographer and retoucher from Sweden, who specialises in photo-manipulations, also gives himself rules when he is working on a project.

During his talk, Erik said that he has a love of two things, photography and computers. So, he combined those two loves to create his style. “I wanted to capture something that wasn't there. But I also wanted it to look like a photograph. The camera became the tool for me to collect material, and I learned by trying,” he said.

“It always starts with what you can imagine. I don't believe that we're limited by the tools – what you can imagine is what you can create,” Erik continued. “Imagine is closely related to inspiration, it's about putting yourself in a situation that makes you want to create something.”

Erik explained that the rule he sets for himself is that he must always try to capture as much as possible by using a camera, and to take new photographs for every project. He says that “then no one can tell you that something doesn't look realistic if you actually captured for real.”


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