Seth Godin: Ideas that spread win
Happiness, decisions, & the paradox of unlimited choices

Can limitations and restrictions be liberating?

Choices 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?

PlainsimpleSteve Hagen says in Buddhism Plain and Simple that " 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
Clock 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
Kid 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
Wabiabi 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."

                                                                   —Richard Powell

Limitations as liberating filters
Curtis 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

StoryRobert 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.

A couple of good articles from A List Apart dealing with related issues (in the context of web design).
A Tao of webdesign
Much ado about 5K



Quite related, I saw a very interesting presentation at TED:

Barry Schwartz on TED Talks

Mr.Schwartz explains why an excess of choice is paralyzing and can make us miserable.

The presentation is interesting, with a funny example on his experience buying a pair of jeans out of 200 models!

I will probably buy his book.


PS: First time I comment. I love your blog, very funny and educational.

And today I will give the first presentation using some of the principles I have learned here.


Painters work with limited palettes, photographers work with B&W, anyone who carves(whatever the material) works with limits, stage set designers are limited by the space available : lots of examples that have been around forever, no need to look at newer disciplines!


The Paradox of Choice presents an interesting POV. This picture from TED shows emotion (happiness/unhappiness) vs. number of choices: with a summary of his [Barry Schwartz] ideas here: This is a good illustration of how to convert a presentation into a poster!

I have written on how constraints can be creatively liberating here:

This post is a really thought-provoking article... thanks Garr.

Garr Reynolds

Thanks, guys! Good call on the Barry Schwartz material. Thank you! I read his book in 2005 and pulled it off the shelf after your reminder, I found that I had underlined several passages and made notes like "put this in the book" etc. Yes, very relevant indeed. It's all so obvious, of course, but we in the wealthy countries (which are not just in "the West"; many countries in "the East" are wealthy too) just do not take the time to ever stop to think about it. If a lot of choice is good then "a lot more" choice is even better. More choice = more freedom = more choice = well you know... Having few choices sucks, but having a billion choices is no panacea leading to happiness or freedom or fulfilment, etc. When it comes to consumer software, developers always feel the need to make the next version "bigger and better" of course.

Doesn't MS make a leaner version of Office (sort of) called Works? Fewer features, but do people want it; seems like consumers always want more, more, more. PPT 2007 on the PC (Mac version coming) is a huge improvement, parts of it are really excellent. But the reason I use Keynote on the Mac for presos is because it has *fewer* options compared to PPT.... Thanks again, guys.


For some reason the article made me think of the following quote;

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". - Antoine de Saint-Expury

I suppose that it came to mind because it ties together the ideas of the constraints and self-discipine. Perhaps the real challenge is having the discipline to fix your own sets of contstraints - to focus on the essence of whatever the task is at hand - rather than allow the mind to wander and attempt to incorporate too many ideas.

Excellent article Garr.


I'm just curious: How many books you typically read in one Week? :)


Barry Schwartz's book is great. The TED presentation is very interesting, as well. When I read his book, I was bewildered. How can limiting choice be liberating? A few weeks later, I wanted to purchase a camera. The vast sea of choices made the task unbearable. Finally, I remembered something my father always says, "Do something, even if it is wrong!" So, I did! Dr. Schwartz is on to something...

David Zinger


I also appreciate the Paradox of Choice. Someone said we can order our beverages 87,000 different ways at Starbucks now. And even with all that choice you can't ask for a "small" coffee.

Although you may be able to contain a raging bull by placing him in a very very large field I have been encouraged by your post to seek out restraints - to think differently inside the box.




Excellent post, Garr. Makes me think of the early days of home computers, when you'd receive a holiday letter from relatives covered in terrible clip art and a jumble of fonts. Why? Because it was there.


i love the person who asked how many books you read per week. im wondering too. :)

Dick Rowan

Very meaty post, Garr. You must read in your sleep! I believe that maximizing choices was a marketing ploy in our youths, and that excessive choice is actually an illusion today. If anything, we now have fewer differentiated choices.

In an open society like ours, markets provide us with the decisions we can't or won't make by organizing and presenting them to us in packages or bundles. Brands are an example: if you want to make a safe, prudent decision, you can't go wrong buying a Toyota or whatever brand you have decided is good for you. You only need look further if you want to. Could be this frees up our minds and spirits to work on personal choices (art?) that no brand can address.

I write about this and ways to improve decision processes at my blog at

Custom Essay

Thank you for such a nice article, good luck and have a nice day=*

The comments to this entry are closed.