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Constraints and creativity

I love a good paradox.

I’ve been reading Mark Boulton’s excellent book on designing for the web, which I’ll review when I get a chance.  I was struck by his insistence that constraints (using a grid, using the standard sequence of point sizes for type, designing in shades of grey) enhance creativity rather than diminish it.

Unbridled freedom, the awesome terror of a blank piece of paper, is almost guaranteed to bring about writer’s block (or painter’s or whatever). I suspect that’s one of the main reasons we love to create rules.

Next time you feel your well of creativity drying up, impose some arbitrary rules on yourself—suddenly you’re working to a brief, and the results will flow again.

When it comes to photography, some of my favourite tricks are:

  • Use only 1 prime lens (or set your zoom once and leave it). Now you have to think about composition and viewpoint much more carefully. You’ll also learn to love the wide apertures and quick focusing.
  • Do everything manually. Get back to basics: focus, and set shutter speed and aperture, manually instead of trusting your camera. The extreme version of this is to take out an old “manual-everything” camera and use the sunny-16 rule. Might seem weird, but I guarantee you’ll learn more about light doing that than you ever will with £1,000 worth of DSLR.
  • Shoot only black and white, in camera. This forces you to think about light and tone instead of colour, which will do your shots a world of good. Learn to see the world black and white.

Often it’s too much choice, not too little, that hampers our creativity. Find ways to limit your options and you’ll be amazed what you come up with, and how much you learn along the way.

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