Creativity Loves Constraints - Business Week
Monday, September 12, 2011 at 12:09PM
Ralph Kerle in Arts, Creativity, Design Thinking, arts-based learning, creativity, design thinking

When people think about creativity, they think about artistic work -- unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. But if you look deeper, you'll find that some of the most inspiring art forms, such as haikus, sonatas, and religious paintings, are fraught with constraints. They are beautiful because creativity triumphed over the "rules." Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained.

But constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Too many curbs can lead to pessimism and despair. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change.

A few years ago, I met Paul Beckett, a talented designer who makes sculptural clocks. When I asked him why not do just sculptures, Paul said he liked the challenge of making something artistically beautiful that also had to perform as a clock. Framing the task in that way freed his creative force. Paul reflected that he also found it easier to paint on a canvas that had a mark on it rather than starting with one that was entirely clean and white. This resonated with me. It is often easier to direct your energy when you start with constrained challenges (a sculpture that must be a clock) or constrained possibilities (a canvas that is marked).

As vice-president for search products and user experience at Google (GOOG ), I lead a team whose job is to harness and meld the creative forces of engi-neers and to channel that creativity into making something that people can use. In product development, we see many different types of constraints. Sometimes they can be the conditions by which the problem must be solved. At Google, the products and services we deliver have to work well for all kinds of users.

Consider, for example, our recent release of the new Google Toolbar beta. When we develop a toolbar version, we can't contemplate only what functions would be useful or which features users ask for most. We also must think about how to create a toolbar that works for all users regardless of whether their screen resolutions allow for five buttons across or 35. We need to make sure that it is fast to download, even over a modem. The new Toolbar has a lot of novel functions, but it is also restricted in download size to just 625 kilobytes, and it allows users to customize how many and which buttons they want to include.

Constraints can actually speed development. For instance, we often can get a sense of just how good a new concept is if we only prototype for a single day or week. Or we'll keep team size to three people or fewer. By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment. In the case of the Toolbar beta, several key features (custom buttons, shared bookmarks) were tried out in under a week. In fact, during the brainstorming phase, we came up with about five times as many "key features." Most were discarded after a week of prototyping. Since only 1 in every 5 to 10 ideas works out, the strategy of limiting the time we have to prove that an idea works allows us to try out more ideas, increasing our odds of success.

Speed also lets you fail faster. Have you ever wondered how a product so lame got to market, a movie so bad got released, or a government policy so misguided got passed? In cases like these, it's likely that the people working on the project invested so much time that it was too painful to walk away. They often know that the endeavor is misguided, yet they work till the painful, unsuccessful end. That's why it's important to discover failure fast and abandon it quickly. A limited investment makes it easier to move on to something else that has a better chance of success.

Yet constraints alone can stifle and kill creativity. While we need them to spur passion and insight, we also need a sense of hopefulness to keep us engaged and unwavering in our search for the right idea. Innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision.

Henry Ford once said: "If I'd listened to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse." True creativity makes the impossible possible. It can revolutionize a product, a business, the economy, and the world around us.

Marissa Ann Mayer is vice-president for search products and user experience at Google. She holds an MS in computer science from Stanford University and joined Google in 1999.

Article originally appeared on The Creative Leadership Forum - Collaborate - Create - Commercialise & Transformational Change (
See website for complete article licensing information.