“I always say we’re incredibly creative within our fences, because I don’t feel like we’re pushing boundaries. We’re very creative within our fences, and because we have the fences, they make for very creative moments.

“We come up with some stuff that I don’t think any of us would’ve come up with had we not had the fences. There’s a lot of other things that I wouldn’t have done visually had we not had the fences and I think they’re better sometimes.”

Shonda Rhimes, creator of Gray’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How To Get Away with Murder (together, the 3 shows are ABC’s Thursday prime time lineup), shared these words on Fresh Air with Terri Gross on NPR. Hear the interview here.

Asked about working on network television rather than on cable, which is far less restricted in content and language, Rhimes sees FCC broadcast rules as her “fences.” Through these words, constraint is not only embraced, it’s credited with forcing creative solutions.


Hearing this interview inspired me finally to sit down and organize my thoughts around this long felt and frequently experienced dynamic.

Twitter‘s 140 character limit. Instagram‘s square images. Ignite‘s 5 minutes, 20 slides, and 15 seconds.

Boundaries, rules, constraints. Operating with lines and limits seems like something many of us view with disdain. We want to be free!


But Rhimes’ fences change our approach. They change the puzzle. We approach, decide, edit, and solve differently.

Finding success in spite of limits has been fundamental to scientific, engineering, medical, and other breakthroughs that improve our quality of life and redefine what’s possible.

Now, a short celebration and warm embrace of creativity from constraint.


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Constraint: Philosophy and Elevation


“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

– American double bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus


Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

– French writer, poet, and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery


“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

– Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky


The process: edits, decisions, solutions.
The goal: essence, simplicity, core.
The elevation: beauty, elegance, grace.

Solving problems within limits is a creative process. These limits may be tested and real. They may be assumed. Or arbitrarily assigned.

Regardless, our best selves seek highest forms, like awesome simplicity, precision, or perfection. Embracing constraint and exercising restraint are not fundamentally detrimental to the process.


Constraint: A Business Classic

Cheap, Fast, Good.
On time, on budget, to spec.
Cost, Schedule, Scope.

The “Triple Constraint” … a project management classic.

The idea: you can only pick two of the three. You can’t have them all.

Of course, you can overcome this to some degree, but the Triple Constraint’s a persistent dilemma. Sometimes you have to make compromises on all three.

These limitations change the way we approach any project. They’re pieces to the puzzle. They’re the fences within which we must operate.

They force us to solve problems creatively.


Constraint: Examples

Deadlines. Character counts for headlines, subject lines, and ad copy. The aforementioned Twitter character count and Instagram image shape.

The fences are all around us. Again, some are real and some are perceived. Some are assigned and others are assumed.

Here are two examples from my experience- one self-imposed and the other systemic.


Prime Lenses

I’ve taken to shooting photos with prime lenses.

While a zoom lens permits you a range of focal lengths and allows tighter and wider shots in one tool, a prime is fixed. You’ve got one focal length and no ability to zoom. The only way to get more wide or tight is to move yourself and your camera.

In addition, I’ll often only have one lens with me when I go out with my camera.

By choice, then, I’m giving myself a limiting factor in composing and capturing images. There’s joy in this arbitrarily imposed constraint that forces creative decisions and solutions.


Television Spots

For 14 years, I wrote, produced, and edited spots for broadcast, cable, and radio – and ran teams of people doing the same. See some of them here.

The duration of these spots or ads or commercials was fixed. 30 seconds. Or 15 or 10 or 5. We produced to various lengths, but they could be no shorter and no longer. The length had to be exact.

It’s not brain surgery or rocket science, but every decision matters if the promo piece is to speak to essence and achieve its purpose.

Music. Script. Shots. Deadline. Budget. Talent. You can’t have it all. You’re forced into decisions.

And a form of art is achieved in lining it all up right. Getting to the essence of a 2 or 3 minutes story or to the core of a brand promise within these limits was satisfying.

Turning a promo based on breaking news or weather within minutes was especially so.


The Bottom Line

Day to day, joy can be found in creative solutions within constraints.

Above that, many of the most pressing issues facing our species (beyond human ignorance, hatred, and violence) are based in constraint.

Generally: limited resources and growing demand.

Food. Energy. Ecology. Health. Solving problems means working within imposed limits or moving beyond these limits.

Here’s to fences! Working within them or jumping over them. Through creativity, ingenuity, and persistence.


More Reading on Creativity and Constraint

37signals: Embrace Constraints | Let limitations guide you to creative solutions

Fast Company: Proof that Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative

Forbes: Creativity | How Constraints Drive Genius

Harvard Business Review: How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity

Wired: Need to Create? Get a Constraint!


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UPDATE: Feb 2017

Today’s Think with Google email featured a story titled “Creativity in Constraint” and featured video storytelling in 6 seconds or less.

See all 7 videos (including the one embedded below) and get perspectives on constraint from the filmmakers: Click Here


Fence photos from top to bottom: