Playing with the problem

In his comment on Home Free at Last, Roger von Oech said:

Typically, when we play with an idea we allow ourselves to try a lot of different approaches. Often, that means eliminating constraints. However, I think that a very liberating form of play is to add a constraint or two to the situation. As Frank Lloyd Wright repeatedly told his students: "Limits are an artist's best friend."

I think it can be argued that the product of almost every activity can be made more creative by adding constraints. If you're a photographer, you're only allowed to take photos between 3:15 and 3:30 PM for the next week. What does that do to your eye? If you're a cook, you can't use more than 20 grams of any ingredient, etc.

Roger reveals how constraints are valuable in the creative process. In this context, there's a breakdown when there is too much freedom, eliminated constraints or unbounded possibilities. The freedom overwhelms the creativity. Unconstrained freedom is the opposite of overwhelming constraints that I implied in the phrase "massive machine for the manufacture of controlled content" and I explained in Getting Creative.

When we are too constrained, we want too much freedom. That's the problematic nature of finding an exit and getting out of the box that Roger is wisely alerting us to consider. It's seeking freedom from constraints, rather than freedom within constraints. Yet, going to the opposite extreme is one of the ways that changes come about.

When we are too free, we want constraints. By going to an extreme, we are provoked to seek the middle ground where we experience the best of both: freedom and constraints. In this center, it feels like we are playing with the problem. The seriousness of overwhelming constraints is gone as well as the lunacy of an unfettered imagination. As Roger notes, constraints have a wonderful effect on creativity. It brings out the best of possibilities, quickens the mind, hastens the inspiration and heightens the synthesis of the opposing interests.

The early development (1966-75) of artificial intelligence (AI) dealt with too many possibilities to consider. Programming a computer to play chess involved too many options for "the bishop's third move". Ways were developed to "organize a tour of the solution space". Heuristics are reliable shortcuts that reliably consider a limited range of alternatives, rather than every possible option. This idea of "touring the solution space" spawned the playful metaphors in "The Universal Traveler -- a soft systems guide to creative problem solving and the process of reaching goals" (Koberg & Bagnall, 1973, 2003).

Christopher Alexander's pattern languages also organize the field of infinite possibilities. Unlike constraints that force the designer/problem solver to get creative, patterns constrain the functional use made designed solutions. Patterns focus on the users -- as Kathy Sierra champions us to do.

I find the essential role of "incubation" to be missing in all I've just said about constraints. There is a time to cook the problem and a time to give it a rest. There's a time to use techniques and added constraints, and a time to give it over to the subconscious to resolve. As with anything, there can be too much "waiting for an inspiration" that fails to "stoke the intuition with the problem "and "work the mind into a focused frenzy" first.

So there is a middle ground between overwhelming constraints and excessive freedom. There is another middle ground between an effective use of constraints and getting inspirations out of the blue (via emptiness, innocence, letting go or not knowing). Combining two balancing acts creates a mandala, medicine wheel or whole understanding.


  1. Tom,

    Thanks for the kind mention in your post today. I like your additional commentary on constraints and also your links to other writings — especially your post about exits.

    I also liked your reference to "heuristics" (a term I don't hear very often these days) and the wonderful old book, "Universal Traveler."

    Here's what's weird. I'm currently working on the 4th edition of my book, "A Whack on the Side of the Head." It will come out early next year to coincide with the 25th anniversary of its first publication. There's a section about half-way through on "Play" that I've been working on. Thus, my comments on the value of adding constraints as a form of play. The curious thing is that the very next section of "Whack" is "Pause for A Bit." And the next paragraph in your post is about the value that incubation plays in the creative process. Curious . . . or just an inevitable flip-side?

  2. Roger:
    Your very welcome Roger and thanks for all your appreciation about this post.

    I've thought of three ways to picture the coincidence of your chapter titled "Pause for a bit" and my mention of incubation today:
    1) It could a be synchronicity that neither one of us caused, but occurred by us both being in the flow of right timing/right action
    2) It could be the flip/flip you mention to resolve an imbalance or compensate for an extreme
    3) It could be that there is a field of universal wisdom that all creative people like us tap into for what to say -- and that's where your books and our blogs come from.

    Of course if could also be "none of the above" or "all of the above".