The Most Counter-Intuitive Creative Principle (Deliberate Constraints) – Mental Model Monday #15


Today I want to talk about what I consider to be one of the most counter-intuitive principals when talking about creativity, and that is the idea of deliberate constraints. If I were to take a budding artist and I were to say, “Create me a piece of art,” would I get a better piece of art than if I took a budding artist and I said, “Here’s your canvas, here’s the four colors I’m going to allow you to use and here’s the medium I’m going to allow you to use to create that art.” The idea behind deliberate constraints is that the second one, even though I’m giving them less freedom, less options, and constraining the types of art- would actually lead to better overall art. This seems to be true if you look at the literature – the question is… why?

The Brain as a Search Algorithm

One way to think about this is to view the brain as a search algorithm.  When you constrain the search space  of a search algorithm that frees up resources to go deeper into each branch of search space and find more permutations along that branch. Whereas if you have a broad search base you’re going to just find the most obvious options along each branch. This gets to the core of creativity, which is simply going beyond the most obvious to find other interesting possiblities.

This can be one reason why deliberate constraints help with creativity. They help you go deeper instead of wider.

The Brain as a Resource Allocator

Another possible avenue of inquiry is to view the brain as a resource allocator. If the brain is allocating resources towards what materials you’re going to use for your art, t’s going to give less resources towards finding a creative form for that art. Whereas if the brain doesn’t have to worry about those details, it will allocate all it’s resources towards finding creative mediums.

The Brain as a Heuristic Machine

A third way to look at the problem is to think about how your brain uses heuristics to solve problem. Your brain will often substitute a complex question with a simpler one. If the question is, “What is the best piece of art I could create?” What it might substitute is, “What is the most obvious piece of art I could create?”

By giving constraints to the art you can create, the most obvious answers already require more creativity than they would have otherwise.  Additionally, the constraints may be such that there are no obvious answers, therefore forcing your brain to answer the original question.


I use deliberate constraints all the time when I am brainstorming, when I am writing, When I’m doing these Mental Model Mondays. I put a deliberate constraint such as “only mental model’s I’ve used in the past week, Or, I’m only going to choose mental models that start with S. It forces my brain to go deeper and be more creative. So I highly recommend you try out using deliberate constraints in your everyday life and see what happens.

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