The Aesthetics of Limits

Sunrise from the International Space Station

Perhaps the most counterintuitive lesson I learned in art school is this: constraints are necessary for creativity. The tighter the constraints, the more creative you have to be when making art or design.

Some of my early classes—”foundations” they were called—imposed strict limits for each project. Typical constraints included materials, paper choice, and size; along with particulars about how pieces were to be prepared for submission. In some cases, I was able to ask for certain exceptions from my professors, but there were always hard boundaries that I had to work within. There was no talk about “creativity without limits.” You could make anything you wanted—as long as it fit within the specifications required by the project.

As an example, one professor was famous for an assignment known as the “spaghetti project.” The instructions were simple: Using only spaghetti noodles and hot glue, make a sculpture. During critique days, the professor would set a ten-pound weight on the sculpture to test structural integrity.

That was it.

I had a different professor for that class, but I knew a bunch of people who had him. Some of them browned dry spaghetti in the oven so they could incorporate colors into their designs. Some laid out spaghetti on wax paper, covered the strands in hot glue, and made sheets of spaghetti that they could assemble in sections. And some boiled the spaghetti and dried the noodles so they could incorporate curved elements into their sculpture.

I saw people do things with pasta that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. Strict limits forced creativity.

Today, the limits I face in my own creative work look a bit different. Most of the time, they are called budget and deadline. Sometimes working within limits means using a typeface that I don’t love or aligning my work with a client’s predefined brand style. I can’t simply make whatever I want. I can make only what satisfies the requirements of the project.

Someone might argue that art is different, that there are fewer limits there. And I would agree, but only to a point. A painter may not have the same functional considerations to contend with as a designer, but they still have to deal with certain limits, say the size of the canvas, the capabilities of the paintbrush, the way the paint builds and blends, and the sheer fact that there are limited colors in the world. The painter’s ability to work within those constraints determines the effect and effectiveness of the piece. Even in the realm of pure art, there is no such thing as “creativity without limits.”

When I embrace constraints—whether the character count for a social post or the deadline for a project—it actually sparks creativity because I’m forced to make the most of what I’m given. Limits give the creative impulse much-needed direction and focus. The mark of a true creative is not someone who has no limits, but someone who works within the limits to make something beautiful, fresh, and by outward appearance, limitless.


Image Credit: NASA Johnson, Sunrise from the International Space Station, https://www.flickr.com/photos/29988733@N04/29185510223

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