Why Constraints Are the Unexpected Key to Creativity in the Age of AI

Why Constraints Are the Unexpected Key to Creativity in the Age of AI

It’s easy to think that in order to create something truly great—whether it’s a business, a strategy, or a product—that we’d benefit the most from absolute freedom.

Without the limitations of time or money or geography, we think, we’d be free to let our most creative selves loose on the world, and our best ideas would flourish.

But rarely is that the case.

In fact, the freedom we seek can end up stifling our creativity and it’s only when we introduce rules, or structure, or constrictions that our ideas truly take shape.

We find our creative liberty actually lives within these restrictions.

Our growth is found in our restraint.


Working better by adding limits

I’m certainly not the first to consider this idea, and it’s certainly not new. In fact, the notion of using constraints to fuel creativity is an old one, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks.

In Poetics, Aristotle argued that the most effective tragedies were those that adhered to the three unities of time, place, and action. This concept has been echoed throughout history by artists, writers, and thinkers, myself included, who have recognized the value of working within limitations.

When we add large language models (LLMs) to the idea of constraints in creativity, it gets even more interesting to think about.

In one sense, an LLM delivers us the ultimate freedom. It’s an expert in an almost infinite number of topics and it can perform an almost infinite number of cognitive tasks. Which means we have an almost infinite number of questions we could ask it.

Paradoxically, however, this can make us less likely to ask it anything at all.

It’s as if the sheer size of the opportunity creates a resistance that holds us back.


More and more and more

We often fall into the trap of thinking that more is better.

If we had more time, more resources, or more options, we could achieve more.

However, as anyone who has ever faced a tight deadline knows, more time isn’t always better. Time constraints can be a powerful catalyst for creativity and often provide just the burst of inspiration we’ve been hoping for. Paradoxically, when we’re forced to work within limitations, we often produce some of our best work.

This phenomenon is supported by research, too. In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Why constraints are good for innovation,” the authors reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation.

They found that “individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.” Without constraints, complacency sets in, and people tend to follow the path of least resistance, going for the most intuitive ideas rather than investing in the development of better ones.

Interestingly, this is a challenge we may face with LLMs as well. The vast amount of information these models are trained on, and the ways in which we prompt them, may lead them to gravitate towards the most intuitive and reasonable ideas, which often lie in the narrow middle.

It’s only by prompting and pushing the LLM to think beyond what’s intuitive, towards the outer edges, that we can elicit more original and creative responses.


Too many choices

What’s more, in the world of marketing, the abundance of options available to us can sometimes lead to choice paralysis.

Should we focus on social media, PPC ads, video content, email marketing, or any number of other strategies?

Here, too, constraints can be helpful. By focusing on a specific target audience, or being forced to stay within a limited budget or in a particular marketing channel, we can deploy our creativity to develop more effective and innovative campaigns.

The key here is to embrace constraints as a creative challenge. As the HBR authors note, “Constraints…provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas.”

By viewing limitations as opportunities rather than obstacles, we can tap into the power of constrained creativity.


Constraints as a strategy

In the Age of AI, the role of constraints in fostering creativity becomes even more crucial.

As machines become increasingly capable of generating content and ideas, it is the unique constraints and perspectives that we bring that will allow us to exploit these tools in the most powerful and beneficial ways possible.

By leveraging the power of constraints, both in our own creative processes and in the way we prompt LLMs, we can push the boundaries of what is possible and create truly innovative solutions.

So, the next time you find yourself facing a constraint, whether it’s a tight deadline, a limited budget, or a specific prompt for an AI model, embrace it as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles.

It’s within the boundaries of constraints that true creativity will flourish.

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