Need a Big Idea? Ask a Small Question.

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There's a quote from tech leader Marissa Mayer that I think about a lot. It goes: “Creativity loves constraints.” 

The first time I heard it, I thought this couldn’t be more wrong. Surely all the best ideas come from ditching the rules and just letting your imagination run free?

Well, actually, no. Not unless you have the kind of self-confidence Muhammad Ali would envy.

Personally, I don’t. So I find myself coming back to Mayer’s words whenever I’m confronted with the limitless possibility of a blank page.

Not long ago, I started a graphic design course. The tutor, Ruth, talked me and the other students through some of the basic principles we’ll be exploring over the next couple of months, then gave us our first brief.

London Zoo is moving premises. Design the announcement card.

Sketch out your ideas for the design.

You have 20 minutes.

This is an excellent brief. It gives four simple constraints:

  • One required short-term output (multiple sketched ideas)
  • One specific medium-term objective (design an announcement card)
  • One clear message to be communicated (London Zoo is moving)
  • A just-about-manageable deadline (20 minutes. Definitely no time for navel-gazing, then.)

Before Ruth had finished speaking, my normally blank page-phobic imagination was buzzing with ideas. Here are the ones I shared once my 20 minutes was up.

Some good, some not so good. But you know what? Every single one is better than white space.

These sketches only made it into existence at all because the constraints in the brief forced my brain and hand to get over the inhibiting concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas and JUST DRAW SOMETHING, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

And once I had some ideas to build on, the whole task seemed a lot less daunting.

I applied the same technique in a workshop with a charity. They were looking for ways to get more young people involved in their campaign to tackle youth homelessness.

How do we end homelessness? is the kind of question a hundred brilliant brains could – and frequently do – puzzle over for weeks, months, and years, without finding a satisfactory answer.

Everyone in the room knew that asking it here would leave us with nine blank faces and zero ideas that would help an audience understand the issue, let alone tackle it.

Instead, we presented the group with a list of campaigning actions that we knew young people would do – donating things, making things, wearing symbols of support, sharing stories and photos.

Then we asked:

How could people help tackle homelessness by doing each of these things?

One hour later, we had 9 excited grins and 16 brilliant campaign ideas.

My point?

Next time someone tells you to ‘think outside the box’, ignore them.

Build your box, climb in, and the thinking will take care of itself.

[This post was originally published on 28 Jan 2016.]