How Restraint Will Fuel Your Creativity

I’m in Japan having breakfast. Gazing at the kitchen. I notice the microwave oven. It has something strangely remarkable; it has only two dials, numbered. One for the heat, one for the time. One would expect a wall of presets labeled with icons. This one has an immediate, universal appeal. The stripped-down design suggests that I already know what a duration and temperature is. A bold design statement, with a minimum cost of entry. It's not simplicity for the sake of it, but deliberate restraint.

1952, photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson leaves his apartment in Paris for a street photography session. In his bag, a Leica camera and some black and white rolls. Cartier-Bresson famously shot with the same gears for most of his life. He constrained himself to one prime lens because it let him shoot faster. The reality was more likely that Cartier-Bresson was a journalist; the paycheck was low, and his set of gears cost him most of his savings. The man invested countless hours in knowing his camera by heart to get the most from it.

The Leica M is a fantastic camera, even by todays standards. Built around two dials: aperture and speed. Cartier-Bresson used the same camera and 50mm lens for all of his life’s work. He never cropped his photos, nor used post-shoot darkroom manipulation. He fully embraced constraints, out of choice and then deliberately.

1986, Prince is in the studio, working on the last demo song for its upcoming album. The track has potential. But there’s not much time left; studios cost money, and the album is due. Prince will spend the next morning rewriting the parts, stripping down the unnecessary. The track—KISS—was made out of a LinnDrum drum machine, a guitar, some back vocals and his voice. It had notoriously no bass parts; Prince, out of time, used the drum machine to fill the gaps.

A tight deadline and restriction in tools led him to unexpected creative solutions. It was poorly received by the producers. “It sounds like a demo. There’s no reverb, there’s no bass — it’s terrible.” But the track was so radical and different, in an era wide open to new sounds, that it propelled KISS to one of the most iconic tracks of the eighties.

2016, thirty years of personal computing later. Cameras have become amazing photography machines. Image editing has no limits. A laptop can simulate any musical instrument to perfection. Bedroom producers create world-class tracks at no cost. Technology brought us in a comfort zone: designers, photographers, musicians, architects have virtually no limit to express their creativity. Yet, in a world saturated with information, with the ability to compare to anything or anyone at the click of a button, it has never been so hard.

Creatives are lost in an open sea. Around them, a dozen of valid routes, hundreds of valid choices to choose from. If every possible direction is equally appealing, how can they ever pick one? Contrary to popular belief, creative freedom is more dangerous than beneficial when it comes to producing meaningful work. Limiting the possibilities isn’t just about making it easier; it’s about making possible to start it all.

Pick a route. Restrict yourself. Is your budget limited? Embrace it. A deadline? Remember Prince made Kiss in one night. Client’s constraints? Set the rules you want to play by. Remember: it’s what you won’t do, as much as what you will do. By exercising limitations early in the creative process, you are going to narrow down the path and be more focused. One route will force you into unique creative solutions.

Set up your environment accordingly. Pull out your phone: how many apps on your home screen, begging for your attention? How many notifications from Facebook, Whatsapp, Wechat, Instagram, Linkedin, emails, co-workers? Remove them. Clean up your home screen. Keep the bare essentials. 99% of the information you receive is noise.

Applying restraint to your life means having less to worry about. How much time can you free for your goals? Accept that your time is limited. It's not about being organized, but about having the ability to focus on just a few things.

Restraint will make you more versatile, more agile, more creative. Apply restraint to your life, and on the single remaining route, you might discover a new continent full of promise.

From the PechaKucha Design Talks in Shanghai.

Prince ‘Kiss’ on Classic Tracks

Cartier-Bresson and the LEICA