Fabian Kok: “My thesis is on the subject of constraints* and creativity. We know that constraints can have both positive and negative effects on creativity. However, not much is known on how exactly (certain types of) constraints influence creative processes. Even less so is known on how people differ in how they react to constraints if they do at all. What I want to find out in my thesis, is whether it’s possible to intelligently suggest constraints to someone in a creative process, in such a way that it increases their creative potential. This could open up a new approach to stimulating creative processes and innovation.

Shortly how I seek to do this: I am building an application, called a recommender system, that takes your experiences (e.g., which constraint (combinations) worked well for you), and uses that to recommend other constraints (combinations) to you, or to users that have similar experiences as you. This is similar to how Netflix suggests shows to you, or Spotify recommends you music based on your taste, only then with constraints.

* Constraints here are as broad as you can imagine, from time constraints (how long you have) to task constraints (you must build a certain kind of product), to even physical constraints (you have to be in a crowded office).”

About Constraints

A conversation between Fabian and Juliette

So what exactly are you researching? I am researching how constraints, or “limitations,” affect the creative process. Most people associate creativity with freedom, and consider constraints on freedom to be the antithesis of creativity. But nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, you are actually doing just that in your daily life, placing constraints on yourself in order to enhance your creativity.

Can you give an example? Well, imagine you are a student/scholar again, back in class, and you are tasked with writing a story that you are being graded on by the professor/teacher. You won’t be told anything in terms of requirements, other than a deadline and “deliver a story”. You probably already know that this will create chaos. What topic should you choose? How long should the story be? What requirements must the story meet to get a good grade?  If creativity flourishes in pure freedom, this scenario should be great, but instead of regarding this as a utopian school scenario, many will find this to be an unpleasant situation. So the interesting thing here is that the first reaction to complete freedom is to look for limitations: a limitation in word count, a limitation in subject matter or way of writing, etc. You intuitively look for limitations to allow your creativity to function!

But then what about the other side of limitations? If there can be too few limitations, can there also be too many? Yes, there can! If a painting teacher imposes so many restrictions on his/her students that they can’t do anything else but paint purely what is in the teacher’s mind, they are not learning the skill of creating something new (creativity) but rather to reproduce. So there is a balance to be struck.

I also have a more abstract example that I personally like to get a better picture of this: Imagine standing inside a closed tower without any windows. The walls are completely covered with countless small lamps. Each lamp represents a new idea and lights up during a creative process when the idea arises. If you don’t impose any restrictions, every light will light up and you will be blinded by the possibilities, making it impossible for you to choose. If you place too many restrictions, none of the lights will go on, and you will be left standing in the dark. The solution here is to introduce, remove, and change such restrictions to have only a few lights left burning. That way they are easy to find and compare, and the best idea (given the constraints) can be chosen.