I had an interesting conversation the other day. I was fortunate enough to chat with photographer Ben Von Wong about inspiration, creative vision, etc and he made a rather fascinating comment: “Provide boundaries and problems to spark creativity.” (Paraphrased)

The analogy was that if you put kids in an empty playground, they huddle together and focus on the area where everyone else has gathered. If you put walls around the playground, the first instinct is to explore the boundaries, figure out how they impact the area they’ve been given, and, if possible, break the boundaries.

In the context of the discussion, he was referring to the struggle a lot of creatives face when it comes to starting a project or creating a concept from a blank canvas. As an educator, I see the presence of this frustration on a daily basis. We’ve all been there – it doesn’t matter what class it is. Write about whatever you want. Research a topic you’re interested in. Photograph what you feel like. Paint anything at all. Open-ended projects are a sure-fire way to short circuit our brains. Anytime I assign an open-ended project, I end up adding in some level of limitation. It’s usually a pretty small roadblock, but I never really considered how important it is to have a restriction.

Ever go to an ice cream shop with half a billion flavors? It takes forever to decide. Go to a shop with four options? In and out in two minutes. The fewer choices we’re provided with, the faster we make decisions. Why do our brains work like this? It probably hails back to some evolutionary benefit for our species. Maybe it’s odds. If we have unlimited variables, it increases the odds of us getting it wrong. Fifty berries and three are safe to eat? Bad odds. Five berries and three are safe to eat? Better odds. I’m not really sure why our brains work this way and it doesn’t really matter. The questions are: How does this harm us? How can we work around the problem? How can we use it to our advantage?

Harm? That’s the straight forward one. A client leaves the concept ENTIRELY up to you.

“I want something eye-catching. Doesn’t really matter – you’re the creative.” (Sorry if that made you break out in hives.)

It seems like a dream come true, but the reality is usually anything but. At first glance the concept of complete creative control is a blessing. There are no horrible ideas that you have to shoot down out of the gate. It’s a great opportunity to implement a concept/technique/process you’ve been wanting to try. You effectively get to write your own job. The downside: The more you flex your creative muscles, the more you hear the phrase, “That’s not really what we’re looking for…”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having your ideas shot down (whether you like to admit it or not, that’s a healthy thing to experience). There’s also nothing wrong with your client engaging in this EXACT practice. They aren’t the artist, and to expect them to have the same level of knowledge as you about the creative process is just illogical. Expecting them to understand the nitty gritty of building a project from the ground up is the same as someone expecting you to have the innate knowledge of the first steps to take when wiring an office building for electricity.  And really, you should be looking at it from a different perspective: By giving you “full creative control,” all they’re really saying is that they trust you, the professional, to do your job.

This leads into the second question: How do we sidestep this situation? Pretty straight forward. Stop it before it starts. As professional creatives, it’s our job to take the necessary steps to ensure that a project goes smoothly and has a conclusion that both we and the client are happy with. It’s our responsibility to keep the project on the rails. Comic Sans as a logo? Reel ‘em back in. Recording voiceover in an echo chamber? Suggest alternative locations. Family portrait shoot at 11:30pm? Offer other time alternatives. They give you full creative control with no limitations? Build yourself some walls.

The question is never “are there limitations?” There are. There are always limitations. The question is, “How do we get answers to questions your clients didn’t know were questions?” Let me give you a hand:

P – “What’s the budget?”

C – “No budget. The sky’s the limit.”

P – “Cool. I think we could do something really awesome for about $60,000.”

C – “What?! Are you crazy? We don’t have that kind of money!”

P – “No worries – now we’re getting somewhere.”

Other possible ways to give yourself boundaries:

  • “Where is this going to end up? Magazine? Social media? Billboard? Superbowl ad?”
  • “What are you promoting?”
  • “When does this need to be done by?”
  • “Are we going to be hiring talent?”
  • “Can we fly to Outer Mongolia to shoot this?”

You get the idea.

Ask more questions and suggest more limitations. Soon the dimensions of the playground will begin to coalesce and you’ll see the boundaries no one even knew were there in the first place. (Added bonus: you look SUPER professional for thinking of all the stuff your client didn’t.)

Here’s the tricky one. How do we use a lack of boundaries to our advantage? Since this is most evident in situations where we are truly, completely, totally, 100% left to our own devices, let’s focus on personal projects. As was mentioned, we need some level of framework (however minimal) to build off of. It’s in our nature. Luckily, this isn’t the hard part. Do you want to shoot stills? Do you want to shoot video?

Good.

What’s the focus? People, products, food, sports, architecture, landscape, animals…? While there are a laundry list of options, this step is still reasonably easy to get through. The rest of the planning? Just apply the “5 W’s of Journalism.” Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Hold up. Don’t tackle “How?” just yet. Whether you realize it or not, you probably just hit the other side of the inspiration spectrum. You gave yourself walls and built a project in the confines. However, you gave into the other weird little ingrained brain function we all have. You built yourself your very own preconceived notion. It may be small, and you may have no idea it’s there, but when you sink your teeth into the project, you’ll find that those walls aren’t inspiration anymore. They’re blinders. You don’t even see the limitations anymore because you’ve accepted them. They’ve defined the entire concept.

We can all get to this point. As creatives we do it again, and again, and again. But don’t stop. This is only enough to create something “good.” To transcend the project – to create something “great,” you need one more step.

You have to remember YOU built the walls. The walls are only there to spark an idea. They were never meant to contain the project. You can expand the walls, or, if you need to, rip them down.

As a species, we need guides. We need trails, and roads, and sidewalks, and paths, and isles. We need some type of structure to keep us from aimlessly milling around. But, we also need to remember that what separates the creatives from everyone else is our ability to step off the path and find that little extra something we would have missed, had we stayed inside our walls.

Build your project, then tear down the walls. You’ll find that what’s just outside your limitations is what you need to take your project from good to great.

– Jon

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