Last Thursday I had the opportunity to speak to 300+ freshmen at BYU. The topic they gave me was “Creativity.” Specifically, how I maintain my creativity. I appreciated this assignment because it made me solidify my thoughts on something I put a lot of effort into and spend a lot of time on, though I’ve never sat down and spelled out what it is I do to stay creative. As I was preparing for this two principles kept coming up over and over, be it in my own thoughts or in conversations with others, about the subject of creativity. And I’ve boiled it down to this:
The flint and steel of creativity is constraints and accountability.
Constraints being those things that seem to get in the way of creative freedom, and being responsible to someone else for what I said I would do.
First off, constraints. If you want to think outside the box you must first have a box. Looking over my work, it seems that the times I’ve had the greatest creative impulses are the times I’ve had the greatest constraints imposed upon me. It’s important to note that these constraints aren’t necessarily imposed upon me by others. They can very well be self-imposed constraints. I’ve narrowed them down to five categories:
(If you can think of more categories, by all means post it in the comments section.)
TIME: For a few years I had a great job working for Reel FX in Dallas. We did a lot of commercials and by their nature the schedules were tight. Some were completed in just a week’s time. You had to be quick on your toes and come up with a lot of stuff on the fly. And though I only had an afternoon to complete some assignments, the ideas that sprung forth were no less creative than something I would’ve given a month’s time to.
STYLE: When I started at Blue Sky I came on during the early stages of Horton Hears A Who. It was tremendously fun to dive into the world of Dr. Seuss, but also daunting to adhere to his very developed and recognizable style. Often times in design reviews I’d hear the words, “Hmmm, it’s just not Seussy enough.” I soon came to find out that though Dr. Seuss’ artistic path curved and winded it was also very narrow and you could easily slip off if you weren’t careful. This constraint only helped to refine and focus my abilities and the solutions took me to artistic places I had never anticipated.
SUBJECT: I started a blog with a group of friends called Draw Force. The purpose was to give ourselves one subject a month to draw something for. It didn’t matter how we approached it so long as we adhered to the subject matter. By being constrained to only draw what the said subject for the month was I found myself flexing creative muscles that weren’t normally exercised.
MEDIUM: I love comics for what they are able to convey with the mix of words, symbols, and pictures. That said, the comics page is an incredibly constrained medium. When creating Missile Mouse I found that the explosive adventure scenes that played out in my head were almost too big for the comics page. In comics there’s no sound and there’s no movement, it’s just still images on a page. It was these constraints that forced me to come up with creative ways to tell the story that felt every bit alive as it was in my imagination.
RESOURCES: Probably one of the most prevalent constraints for most artists is resources. There’s no question that limited resources can foster creativity. I see this almost daily in my 5 year old son. His Duplo creations put my LEGO creations to shame sometimes. Where I’m often paralyzed by the amount of choices I have with the giant tub of LEGO bricks sitting in front of me, he manages to create robots, spaceships, and castles with the few clunky blocks at his disposal. Also, When I decided to do Inktober and to only draw in pen and ink for one month it was a way of limiting myself to those tools as a way to improve my abilities with them.
I guess time could be considered a resource. But since it’s not tangible I’m keeping it on it’s own.
It’s also important to note that constraints can kill creativity. However, in these instances I don’t blame the constraints, I blame the artist. I’ve seen too many incredibly creative answers in the face of tremendous obstacles to believe that limitations snuff out creativity. It is the artist responsibility to engage such constraints, and either work within them or find a solution to counter them.
Second, accountability. Like constraints, you can be accountable to others or the accountability can be to one’s self. When accountability is absent and the inspiration has subsided, and the constraints are piling up against you it’s easy to to give up and search out the path of least resistance. The artists with little integrity do just that (myself included from time to time). But if you are accountable to someone it gives you that extra push to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way.
If you work for someone or are hired on by a client the accountability is obviously to them. They will hold you to what you are being payed to do. Likewise, if you are a student you are accountable to the person giving assignments. However, if you are creating work outside of an educational environment, a studio system, or a freelance type of situation, the accountability issue can be a bit less clear.
When I took on the Inktober challenge I knew I wouldn’t finish it out unless I made an announcement on my blog that I would post an ink drawing everyday for the month of October. I was thereby accountable to you. And I didn’t want to be know as that guy who set off to do something only to get a few days into it and quit.
Accountability was inherent in the creation of Draw Force. By assigning each other the subject for the month we each became accountable to each other, and would hold that assignment to each other.
And though it takes a lot more self control, being accountable to one’s self can be the most powerful motivator. How you do that is up to you, I’ve had different levels of success with being accountable to myself, so I usually resort to making myself accountable to others, be it blog readers (both imagined and real) and friends. That’s what seems to work best for me.
So there you have it. My formula: Creativity = Constraints + Accountability.
What do you think? Are there other examples you can think of where a certain constraint helped you be more creative in your work? Is there something fundamental to maintaining creativity that I’m missing here? I’d love to hear your thoughts.