Can creative constraints be enabling?

Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

In the TEDx talk below by the previous world-champion beatboxer Shlomo, the music artist talks about how he first started beatboxing (a form of making percussion noises through one’s mouth, lips and voice). His parents gave him a drum kit on his 8th birthday but with the strict rule he was not allowed to play after 6pm, as the neighbours would complain. Based on this heavily enforced restriction, Shlomo had to find another way to practice in the evening so he started using his mouth to make the percussive sounds of the drum beat and rhythm.

Shlomo’s story is an example of when constraints and rules can be enabling in a creative context. As Shlomo himself says, many other artists he knows have had creative restrictions placed on them, which has ultimately forced them to push their art form further.

In reference to painting, Stokes (2006) delineates three types of creative constraint: subject, task and first choruses. Subject constraint refers to content, whilst task constraint is about the materials and working methods. First choruses for painters are constraints given by teachers, suggested by the past canon and also taken from the popular (2006: 32). Producing a new painting involves negotiating a series of these multiple and unique constraints, which are determined by the individual artist.

In other research on creative constraints, psychologists have found that the social environment can significantly influence an individual’s motivation for doing an activity, which in turn significantly influences creative performance (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). Amabile (1996) makes a distinction between she calls the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity – doing something for the sheer enjoyment, interest and personal challenge rather than for an external goal – and extrinsic motivation and constraints. She argues that intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity whilst extrinsic motivators are generally detrimental as creativity is undermined by anticipated reward, expected evaluation, competition, surveillance and restricted choice. However, as Rosso (2011: 16) highlights, more recent studies have sought to challenge this influential theory by exploring whether constraints inhibit or enhance creative processes in individuals and group settings, which have yielded mixed and paradoxical findings (see George, 2008; Shalley et al., 2004; Zhou & Shalley, 2003).

The growing body of research on creativity and constraints largely examines time constraints, resource constraints and standardising processes to understand how or if constraints impede creativity, whether they are actually beneficial, and also how constraints are managed. As the 53 Million Artists project unfolds, it will be interesting to investigate the conditions and constraints that effect the creativity of the contributors and the social, cultural, economic and psychological mechanisms underlying their participation.


Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, CO: Westview

George, J. M. (2008). Creativity in Organizations. The Academy of Management Annals, 1(1), 439-477.

Hennessey, B., & Amabile, T. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 569-598.

Shalley, C. E., Zhou, J., & Oldham, G. R. (2004). Effects of personal and contextual characteristics on creativity: Where should we go from here? Journal of Management, 30, 933–958.

Stokes, P.D. (2006) Creativity from constraints: The psychology of breakthrough, Springer: New York.

Rosso, B. (2011). Creativity and Constraint: Exploring the Role of Constraint in the Creative Processes of New Product and Technology Development Teams. The University of Michigan Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Zhou, J., & Shalley, C. E. (2003). Research on employee creativity: A critical review and directions for future research. Research in Personnel and Human Resource Management. Oxford, England: Elsevier Science.

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