Having grown up in the abundance of the US, I was basically taught that freedom is, among other things, the maximization of choices. The more choices the better. All those choices. All that abundance.157 kinds of breakfast cereal…how to decide? The freedom to choose, at least on things that matter most, is a wonderful gift indeed. Yet, in our daily lives we too often burden ourselves with petty choices, unimportant matters, and frivolous decisions. In today’s world we may have political/social freedom (if we're lucky), but often lack “a freedom of mind,” the very freedom that can matter most when aiming to construct creative solutions to complex problems. Our minds — even our lives in general — have become complicated by clutter.
Is freedom the maximizing of choices?
Steve Hagen says in Buddhism Plain and Simple that "...no freedom lies in maximizing petty choices." We all know this, of course, but still we battle with the unnecessary and the nonessential, not just in our professional or creative lives but in life in general. No one likes the idea of restrictions or of “no choice,” of course. Having no options and no choices can certainly be a bondage, but choices — too many choices — can be a bondage as well. Too many choices — options, features, functions, etc. — can become a bondage that slows creativity. Choices are great, but many of us (me included) obsess about the pursuit of obtaining more and more choices.
"True freedom doesn't lie in the maximization of choice, but, ironically, is most easily found in a life where there is little choice."
— Steve Hagen
Ad critic Bob Garfield in his book And Now a Few Words From Me talks about the "tyranny of freedom" and the ad industry's obsession with "breaking all the rules." Garfield reminds us that in the case of a child, for example, "the lack of boundaries does not liberate, it enslaves..." Garfield's point is that what looks superficially to be confining can sometimes be the path to liberty. In the book Story by Robert McKee (part 3, principles of story design) the author uses a pointed quote by T.S. Eliot to kick-off his discussion on the importance of setting boundaries:
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl."
— T.S. Eliot
Learning from the pros: the art of working with restrictions
Last December my friends Jasper von Meerheimb and Sachiko Kawamura, designers for Universal Studios Japan (USJ) here in Osaka, gave an excellent presentation for Design Matters Japan on the issue of how restrictive conditions put on creative projects can lead to inventive solutions. In their presentation they talked about how one develops a concept and implements it under such constraints as limited time, space, and budget. For professional designers, the idea of creating great work under myriad constraints and limitations imposed from the outside is simply the way the world of design works. Whether constraints are good or bad, enabling or crippling, is in a sense irrelevant; constraints are simply the way of the world. Still, as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity, “In the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed." Time, for example, and the sense of urgency that it brings is almost always a constraint, yet "urgency and the creative spirit go hand in hand..." says Maeda.
The need for creating our own constraints
Using creativity and skill to solve a problem or design a message among a plethora of restrictions from the client, from the boss, etc. is old hat to designers. They live it. Daily. However, for the millions of non-designers with access to powerful design tools, the power and importance of constraints and limitations is not well understood. For those not trained in design, the task of creating presentation visuals (or posters, websites, newsletters, etc.) with today's software tools can make one either frustrated by the abundance of options or giddy in anticipation of applying their artistic sensibilities to decorate their work with an ever-increasing array of color, shapes, and special effects. Either condition usually leads to designs that suffer. What we can learn from professional designers, then, is that (1) constrains and limitations are a powerful ally not an enemy, and (2) creating our own self-imposed constraints, limitations, and parameters is often fundamental to good, creative work.
“Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint."
— James Russell
In the world of presentation design, software gives us a huge amount of options, so many options that the novice is often either crippled by the complexity of choice, or indiscriminately applies tools and effects without restraint to suit his particular taste. On this point John Maeda says that "...while technology is an exhilarating enabler it can be an exasperating disabler as well."
Learning to embrace and learn from constraints
Self-imposed constraints can help us formulate clearer messages, including visual messages. In the various Zen arts, for example, you’ll find that careful study, practice and adherence to strict guidelines (or “constraints”) serve to bring out the creative energy of the individual. For example, Haiku has a long tradition and strict guidelines, yet with much practice one can create a message (in 17 syllables or less) that captures both the details and the essence of a moment. The form of Haiku may have many rules, but it is the rules that can help one express their own “Haiku moments” with both subtlety and with depth. In Wabi Sabi Simple, author Richard Powell comments on wabi sabi, discipline, and simplicity as they relate to such arts as Bonsai and Haiku:
“Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. [C]arefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure....Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention."
Limitations as liberating filters
Hillman Curtis, in his book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, talks about limitations serving as filters that force us to make our designs/messages better. “Limitations can be seen as liberating frameworks that force you to streamline your work, making it accessible to the most people possible, both technologically and aesthetically.” Hillman talks about how their shop has learned through time a practice to view limitations not as annoyances but as "welcome editors" that keep them on track. This helps them boil designs down to the essence of what they are trying to communicate without the unnecessary or the extraneous. Self-editing is an important skill, though Curtis admits that all creatives (writers, designers, etc.) struggle with self-editing:
“You may include things you believe to be crucial in a design, but those elements are often only crucial to you.”
— Hillman Curtis
I really love MTIV and highly recommend it, though I must admit that it is the wonderful design of the book itself that draws me in.
Setting our own restrictions
Robert McKee in his book Story speaks of the importance of what he calls “The Principle of Creative Limitation.” McKee stresses that self-imposed limitation is vital and that the first step to developing a great story is to create a small, knowable world. McKee is speaking about the restrictions that the structure/setting relationship puts on the choices for the creator of a story. But this restriction does not inhibit creativity (for the writer in this case); “it inspires it.” Writing a great story or developing a compelling presentation (or website, etc.) is about making creative choices. A screen writer will write far more material than she can use. The genius is in what she leaves in and what she cuts out.
“Creativity means creative choices of inclusion and exclusion.”
— Robert McKee
The same can be said for crafting a presentation; success fundamentally depends on making good decisions about what to leave in or cut out. With presentation, you have to decide what little chunk of the thing it is you’re going to talk about and that is it. You can go deep or you can go wide, but you can not do both, and frankly you can’t even go that deep or that wide either. It is after all just a short presentation — an ephemeral moment in time — so think carefully about what will be included and what will end up excluded.
Life is about living with limitations and constraints of one type or another, but constraints are not necessarily bad, in fact they are often helpful, even inspiring as they challenge us to think differently and more creatively about a particular problem. While problems such as a sudden request to give a 20-minute sales pitch or a 45-minute overview of our research findings have built-in limitations — such as time, tools, and budget — we can increase our effectiveness by stepping back, thinking long and hard, and determining ways we can set our own parameters and constraints as we set out to prepare and design our next presentation (or next design project, etc.) with great clarity, focus, balance, and purpose.