A contract of constraints

I began piano lessons at age five. Classical only. Scales. Practicing every evening before dinner was a requirement. In the early ‘80s, weakened by requests, my parents purchased a synthesizer for me. It was an imperative purchase, I felt at the time, for me to continue my creative pursuits as a young musician.

See also:
The New England Synthesizer Museum

Yet with four more sounds to choose from — not just Piano, but Strings, Harpsichord, and Voices — I was all but paralyzed by choice. And special effects like vibrato added exponential confusion. Instead of being freed, I was truly flummoxed.

Baffled by creative block, I remember questioning my mother at the time, “how can individuals be capable of making choices in the face of so much choice?” but my lack of articulation on the topic at that age resulted in no satisfying answer. She just saw this as another lost investment — much like my passing fancy with soccer and the saxophone. The synthesizer gathered dust under the ruffle-skirted bed, as did any sense of hope about mastering freedom.

Regimentation of creativity

See also:
Family legend has it that Switched-On Bach, recorded using Moog synthesizers, was my favorite album by age two

I’d visit friends who’d upgraded their synthesizers to models with more voices, more choice, even fewer constraints. Impressive. But I would think of the simplicity of the Chickering in my living room. While jealous of their ability to produce without constraint, I couldn’t wait to return to the singular purpose of the baby grand.

Decades later, this pattern repeats itself, as choice is a constant undertone in social and professional interactions, and actively inscribed in the culture of cities. Thus, a regimentation of creativity is necessary.

A contract of constraints

To produce something of merit, I adopt a kind of contract of constraints, an unspoken loose ruleset, that marks boundaries by which I must abide when I work. No matter what an outcome, you can limit a pursuit by at least:

a. Time

Limit an activity to a specified amount time. Instead of solving it in eight hours or a period of weeks, solve it in XX, a shorter period of time. Design charrettes are good models. As Kathy Sierra points out, “One of the best ways to be truly creative — breakthrough creative — is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast.

b. Grammar

Restrict choices to specific constructions or a vernacular that will give the product or solution form. Choose a letter or a stylistic constraint, and solve for that only instead of tackling an entire design system.

c. Material

Choose one or two materials or platforms and only work within those boundaries. Ignore all others. Work only with recycled plastics from your community; decide your website will only have one page. Limit the material to two, or better, one. Some of the most impressive architectures — digital and physical — have been constructed when material constraints were most limited.

These sample contracts are an assurance between you and your work, such that the website, the product, the music, the book you are actively producing is given boundaries. After a while, they feel less formal, and choices rewarding rather than daunting. And the time you’re spending, valuable, resulting in a tempo and sound that will surprise even you.

Most importantly: constraints, once decided upon, should be tested and stretched, but not forgotten. It is, after all, a contract.