Posted by: Tj'ièn | January 10, 2010

Design equals limits

How do you come up with innovative ideas? How do you find new solution and be creative? How can you force originality when an assignment asks for it? The answer lies in something that may feel counter intuitive for lots of people. It is about accepting and acknowledging limits in the creative process and creating more, instead of opening up your mind and adding ideas upon ideas.

To explain how this works I’m going to use the term ‘thinking outside the box’ as a metaphor for how our creative process works. So when we’re talking about thinking outside the box, what does the box actually mean?

For me the box can be compared to our mind. It has 2 distinct features namely the border and the content. The content refers to all our ideas, thoughts and concepts that we may think of while the border keeps this all together. It is really hard, if not impossible, to think beyond these borders. Without borders, there would be no box and no limit to our thoughts. Without the box our thoughts would be infinite. So, where do our borders come from?

The borders of our box are mainly defined by preconceptions, fuelled by experience and expectations. Our mind constantly associates things with other things; it’s constantly trying to find connections between different thoughts. This process is completely automatic and we have no or very little control over this.

So let’s do a little thought experiment: If I were to give you a semi realistic assignment of creating a video game for home consoles with a target group of young male between the age of 8 and 12 years old and it had to be of the platforming genre you’ll setup borders in your mind with the four requirements I just set up.

The words ‘video game’ splits the mind into 2 sections by every thought that is connected to video games and everything that is not. You might think about a screen, a desktop computer, an Atari 2600, etc. The same thing happen the requirements ‘home console’, ‘8-12 year old male’ and the worst in this list is ‘platform game’. Genres -by their very definition- are a set of preconceptions, meant to describe a product of the same kind. So you are bound to think about jumping, collecting, character control, moving left to right and all other kinds of thoughts when you hear the words ‘platform game’.

So when we start thinking about anything our mind creates borders, effectively boxing in your thought, hence the Box. Now in everyday live this is pretty handy as it acts as a filter, or a kind of search engine to find related stuff quickly. It is in fact a comfort zone. But the problem is that these thoughts, ideas and concepts are superficial and not necessarily lead to the best design.

To combat this I use 2 techniques; making the Box smaller and creating a completely new Box. Let’s start with making the Box smaller.

Now, this process is started by our assignment already, it created our basic box. Doing some research will tighten the borders even further and some thoughts that are inside the Box may have to be dropped as research has proven them to be no longer valid. But the research has also made us more aware of the superficiality of the content, our thoughts, ideas and concept. We start to feel our borders and we are noticing that there isn’t really anything original in there.

So our natural response is to want to expand the borders, allowing more thoughts in the Box, allowing us to think about new ideas. So we add new ideas, and more new ideas and even more new ideas so we do not feel as restricted and we may even think that there are some creative new ideas in there. But it also turns our Box into a big mess, a big pile of ideas that do not correlate. From this pile it is hard to find anything.

So, we should not widen the Box even if it seems so natural to do, but instead we should shrink the box, making it even smaller. And one of the ways of doing this is to question the content, to question our preconceptions. To demonstrate this let’s go back to our thought experiment and take our platform game.

One of the many preconceptions I have is that platform games always include a character that is controlled by the player. So what would happen if we question this and we do not control a character? One of the solutions to this would be to control the world instead and a famous game that does this brilliantly is LocoRoco, allowing us to control 1 big or many small creatures at once by turning the entire world into a direction, allowing the creatures to roll to a side.

Another preconception of me is that the game is played with the standard controller, but what if we challenge this as well? What of we controlled the game with a pair of drums instead? We might end up with Jungle Beat…

This way of adding borders by challenging the content of our Box, thus by challenging our preconceptions create a smaller Box and adds a lot of problems, because we can not find solutions within our preconceptions, within our comfort-zone. These problems actually drive us, or better yet, force us to find solutions beyond the borders, beyond our comfort-zone. In this way, adding borders forces creativity.

The other solution would be to drop the Box that we set-up earlier and start with a completely new focus point. This new focus point could be anything. It could be game related, such as game mechanics, or it could be far removed from the comfort-zone, such as emotions.

Focusing on a completely new box frees the mind of its old borders and may provide a completely new perspective for the old Box. Focusing on something that feels unrelated (such as our new Box) helps you look at your old Box with new eyes.

For an example a focus on time control could lead to a game as Braid, which in essence is still a platform game, but one which didn’t occur in our old Box, as it includes a new perspective. The old Box was full of preconceptions about what a platform game would be, but it would not include stuff as time control. By focusing on time control first and by investigating what it means to be able to affect time sheds a new light on how it might affect the rest of our platform game.

Couldn’t time control be one of our ideas that we throw into our Box while expanding it, like we naturally tend to do? Yes it could be part of our expanding Box, but we wouldn’t know the value of that idea because it was one of many that we added. Because of lack of focus on this new Box, this new mindset, it wouldn’t steer us and guide us in the right direction. It wouldn’t provide us with a new perspective but it would be just a new addition.

Focusing on something new, investigating it and then returning to your old Box and see how you can make it fit will again force you to be creative. The further you are from your comfort-zone, your old Box, the more the new perspective will provide you with new insight and innovative ideas.

So these 2 ideas, shrinking the Box or starting of with a new Box, really help the creative process, at least for me. But it isn’t easy. It requires the abandoning of your comfort-zone, which takes courage, faith and determination.

You’ll need to abandon your comfort-zone with both techniques; shrinking the Box forces you to leave the Box while with the new Box it is a starting point. It takes courage and faith to believe in the fact that you can come up with solutions to problems that you have created by adding limits or by starting at a completely new starting point. It is all too easy to dismiss the borders you have created because the problems they create are seemingly too hard to find solutions for. It takes determination to hold on, and faith in your own creativity, believing in your power to overcome these problems and being able to innovate.



  1. […] you want to know what it is about I suggest reading the article about the same […]

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