Restrictions and Creativity

Years ago, I read an article by the Lead Game Designer Mark Rosewater wherein he explained that (paraphrasing) “restriction create breeding grounds for creativity“. His exact words were:

["Rules are obstacles to creativity"] is probably the biggest myth that causes people to lash out against the rules. The problem is that this myth is based upon a false assumption. People like to believe that a world of infinite choices is more conducive to creativity than a world of finite choices. Essentially, the more choices available, the more chance for creative thought.

Unfortunately, scientific exploration into the means of creative thought has proven this not to be true. Testing has shown that restrictions actually aid creative thought. How is this possible? The answer rests in the human mind. It turns out that the mind isn’t good at completely open-ended choices. When faced with total freedom of options the brain retreats to known pathways. It simply repeats what worked last time it was in this situation.

This idea, that constraints somehow force us to explore creative space more, is one that has stuck with me ever since reading that article. I had read elsewhere that a coping trick for feeling overwhelmed is to break your mammoth task down into smaller bits and manage those bits little by little, and this is sort of the same principle: our brains are not particularly good at tracking large sets of data. 

Music Technology Restrictions

At the Chip Music seminar “Revision 2011″, hardware hacker and chiptune enthusiast Linus Akesson gave an extremely intriguing (IMHO) presentation about the history of chip music and how the constraints imposed by the hardware restrictions served to creatively mold the genre.

His abstract sums it up perfectly:

When working with a soundchip such as the SID or the 2A03, the artist faces a number of technical constraints that limit, guide and inspire the creative process. The seminar will highlight and briefly explain some of these constraints, with particular emphasis on how they influenced artists during the golden age of chip music to give rise to some of the clichés that now define the genre. We will also see (and hear) how variations of the same constraints have emerged in other genres and ages, and how composers such as Bach have tackled them in similar or different ways.

Akesson is the inventor of the Chipophone, an old bi-level organ he repurposed into an 8-bit synthesizer. If you are at all familiar with the old 8-bit NES games, you will probably recognize both the style and some of the sample pieces he plays.

In the talk, he mentions that over the years, there were restrictions in the available hardware for cost reasons; a very limited number of synthesizers (sine, triangle, pulse, etc.), constraints due to available memory and storage space, and even constraints due to the vertical refresh rate differences between NTSC (US) and PAL (Europe) television formats (if you’re curious, that part starts around the 17 minute mark — nearly every NES song created was 150bpm).

Having only 2-4 “tracks” to work with (at any given moment, a single track can tell one instrument to play one note) means, Akesson explains, that a four-note jazz chord (Maj7 or Min7) isn’t really possible — so they drop the fifth and the resulting chord, which he calls the “Famichord” (a portmanteau of “Famicom”, the Japanese origin of the NES, and “chord”) is a common compositional element in many classic NES themes. Some of those themes are demoed during his presentation.

The refresh rate issue forces composers to either adapt to the tempo (150bpm) by using different time signatures, or different meters, or allowing for a “groove” (a situation where a quarter note isn’t always the same length, creating a swing-y feel).

Although modern hardware and software capabilities allow us to emulate those old chiptune sounds, if we don’t also emulate the restrictions then the music does not sound authentic for the period.

A previous post I wrote, Short Song – Class Project, where I explicitly mentioned the same Mark Rosewater article and concept, showcases this philosophy in a similar fashion: with the restriction that we were only allowed to use the “Subtractor” instrument in our racks, we had to really explore that creative space to produce all the different aspects of the song.

Artificially Imposed Restrictions as a Creativity Tool

Years ago, I had some art classes in high school. We were doing a unit on oil pastels and I just didn’t get it. It was very frustrating. At the time, I was doing a lot with pencils and charcoal; kind of non-committal “fuzzy” media, since you can easily erase. Pastels are a bit more of a commitment — or so I thought!

My teacher, Ms. Rhoades, told me to pick a picture out of a magazine and try to re-create it with oil pastels. I distinctly remember resenting the project and complying only begrudgingly. But when I was finished, when the class period was over, we hung it up on the door to do the 10 yard test (stand 10 yards away so you can look at it without getting caught up in minutiae).

Nothing that’s going to get me into the Louvre, or MOMA, of course, but considering that an hour earlier I hated the media, this piece was a turning point for me.

Over the years, my favorite medium combination for colors has actually been using oil pastels on discarded corrugated cardboard, particularly from mailers and packaging. The cardboard just has a nice soak for the oil pastel, and enough texture to really pull on it; not to mention the neutral tone of cardboard allows for a good color range as well. But really, I used the cardboard because it’s what I had available — an circumstantial restriction.

Putting Boundaries to Work

Whether or not you are someone who is typically comfortable living in a more analytical space of your mind, it is uncanny how the imposition of boundaries suddenly makes creative solutions spring to life. In fact, manipulating those boundaries can often be a way to stir the pot of your creativity. Try this process with any creative task:

  1. Determine your goal (eg. “draw a picture”, “write a song”, “cook dinner”)
  2. Set boundaries or constraints (eg. limited color palette, committing some random line or shape to paper first, choosing a musical key, picking themed ingredients or seeing what’s available)
  3. Ask yourself “What do I need to do next to accomplish my goal within those boundaries?”
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 as necessary, changing the boundaries and seeing what other solutions your mind comes up with.

It’s a surprisingly effective strategy, particularly if you are not someone who feels “at home” in their creative mind. When doing this, a lot of times I feel like I’m simultaneously two people: the actor and the audience. It can be a little unsettling, particularly if you’re also someone who is very introspective; watching yourself produce and being unsure where it’s coming from feels like you’re possessed.

Do you have any tricks you use for being creative? What is your experience with your creative process?