Posted August 23rd 2010 at 9:48 am by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Adopting Constraints as Fuel for Group Creativity

One of the most powerful design thinking concepts is to view constraints as inspirational instead of limiting. I personally love constraints. As Garr Reynolds wrote,

“Embrace restraints. Designers are all about working with restraints (time, budget, location, materials). Identify your limitations and then create not the perfect solution, but the best solution given the restraints. If you can do it with less, why add more?”

~ From How to Become a Better Manager… by Thinking Like a Designer by Jimmy Guterman, MIT Sloan Management Review 2009

We’ve probably all had that experience where a problem is so broad that an infinite array of solutions seems to stretch out ahead of us. Rather than being stimulating, this situation is often paralyzing. Breaking the problem into bite-sized pieces by focusing on real or even experimental constraints one at a time can actually help generate more ideas.

To give an example, during a project creating a phototherapy device for treating infant jaundice in Southeast Asia, Design that Matters (DtM) looked at the challenge through a variety of lenses. Instead of asking the broad question, “How might we design a phototherapy device for use in Southeast Asia?” we framed a series of questions, each focusing on one constraint to make brainstorms more generative. For example, one brainstorm question was “How might we design a phototherapy system that maximizes flexible use?” Some of the resultant ideas appear below.

DtM_Firefly_HMWA series of  idea sketches inspired by the constraint of creating a flexible-use phototherapy device. Photo by Elizabeth Johansen.

For our phototherapy device project, DtM used a host of additional constraints one by one to inspire creativity including imagining a device that is modular, customizable, highly portable, sharable, and able to be held in a mother’s arms. After exploring more than twenty topics through brainstorms and work sessions, we then took the best ideas inspired by each constraint and combined them into a set of five complete concepts that were ready for stakeholder feedback.

I first experienced the power of using constraints for creativity during a creative competition called Odyssey of the Mind, now renamed Destination Imagination. My coach, Monica Lobser, was a genius at inspiring creativity within groups. After more than ten years of coaching, she wrote a fabulous book called Mind Poppers together with creative performance expert Teddy Goldman. To get the feel of using constraints to inspire creativity, have your group try this exercise from their book.

Under Wraps

The group will create a single costume for all of the members to wear at the same time. One volunteer member will be the director and not be part of the costume. She will lead the costumed group in a one-minute demonstration of what the team is portraying.


Only the materials provided may be used. The group will have twenty minutes to design, build, and decorate the group costume. The costume must represent a recognizable character or object. If the group chooses to create a dragon, for example, then the costume and performance must clearly represent how a dragon would look and act.

Required Materials:

1 Package large white plastic trash bags

2 Pair of scissors

1 Roll clear tape

35 Permanent markers

Note the constraints: One costume, four materials, twenty minutes. When exploring a problem through the lens of one constraint, time limits are necessary and incredibly helpful to keep the team from going into an unproductive spin and keep energy high. Finally, I would like to impose one last constraint: please send me a picture of your costume when you’re done!

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for eight years as a product designer at IDEO.

Comments are closed.