Constraints can make you more creative. When constrained, you consider different possibilities and end up with more and better output. I’ve shared time boxing techniques before, but time is only one kind of constraint. Those in creative industries know this well. Visual artists might choose a restrictive medium. Actors often gather for improvisation, with no storyline determined until it’s selected at random. They narrow their focus, subtracting enough of the possibilities
Austin Kleon writes that all creativity is subtraction in his book Steal Like an Artist:
“Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now. The right constraints can lead to your very best work. My favorite example? Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.”
Kleon has used subtraction—literally—in his own art. He wrote a book and maintains a website with poetry based on newspapers redacted, much like the image above. Using a black Sharpie, he subtracts the words he doesn’t want, uncovering a poem that was always there, unseen.
Similarly, the Laws of Simplicity boil down to subtraction. What can you take away from your work and still have it feel complete? What can you take away from your process that inspires entirely new types of work?