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Think outside the box. It’s a popular idea. It’s the story of the lone artist going away and making something radically different. But what if that’s not always the case? What if creativity isn’t always about thinking outside the box? What it involves thinking differently about the box?

Ever watched a child play with a refrigerator box? It becomes a car, an airplane, a robot suit, a table, and a tunnel. Think of Minecraft or Legos. They are basically variations on stacking boxes. And yet, the simplicity and lack of options actually unleash the power of creativity.

This is the idea of creative constraint.

It’s the notion that innovation happens when you run into barriers that force you to find a new route; that creativity often involves problem-solving and systems-hacking. Yes, creativity can mean an empty canvas or a blank page. But it can also be a roll of duct tape.

Think of Camden Yards or AT&T Ballpark or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. These places are creative because they were built around quirky spaces. Similarly, chefs have developed some of the most creative recipes when forced to use specific ingredients. Or think of the Apollo 13 engineers who helped the astronauts back to Earth with limited time and resources. Creative constraint is what makes Vine videos and 3 Chord Punk and live theater so fun to experience. It’s also why the plot constraints of the hero’s journey led to the epic Star Wars trilogy.

The point is, life will hand you boxes. But every box is an opportunity to be more creative. It’s all about how you think about it.

Looking for More on the Creative Process in Education?

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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