Want to be Creative? Think Inside the Box.

David Intrator

A persistent myth about creativity, one that seriously inhibits creative thinking and innovation, is the belief that one needs to "think outside the box."

Nothing could be further from the truth, a view shared by the vast majority of professional creatives, expressed famously by the modernist designer Charles Eames when he wrote, "Design depends largely upon constraints."

The myth of thinking outside the box stems from a fundamental misconception of what creativity is, and what it’s not.

In the popular imagination, creativity is something weird and wacky. The creative process is magical, or divinely inspired.

But in fact, creativity is not about divine inspiration or magic.

It’s about problem-solving, and by definition a problem is a constraint, a limit, a box.

One of the best illustrations of this is the work of photographers. They create by excluding the great mass what’s before them, choosing a small frame in which to work.

Within that tiny frame, literally a box, they uncover relationships and establish priorities.

What makes creative problem-solving uniquely challenging is that you, as the creator, are the one defining the problem. You’re the one choosing the frame. And you alone determine what is an effective solution.

This can be quite demanding, both intellectually and emotionally.

Intellectually, you are required to establish limits, set priorities and cull patterns and relationships from a great deal of material, much of it fragmentary.

More often than not, this is the material you generate during brain-storming sessions. At the end of these sessions, you’re usually left with a big mess of ideas, half-ideas, vague notions and the like.

Now, chances are you’ve had a great time making your mess. You might have gone off-site, enjoyed a "brainstorming camp," played a number of warm-up games. You feel artistic and empowered.

But to be truly creative, you’ve got to clean up your mess—you’ve got to organize those fragments into something real, something useful, something that actually works.

That’s the hard part.

It takes a lot of energy, time and willpower to make sense of the mess you’ve just generated.

It can also be emotionally difficult.

You’ll need to throw out many ideas that you originally thought were great, ideas you’ve become attached to, because they simply don’t fit into the rules you’re creating as you build your box.

You can always change the rules, but that also comes with an emotional price.

Unlike many other kinds of problems, with creative problems there is no external authority to which you can appeal to determine whether you’re on the right track; whether one set of rules should have priority over another; whether one box is better than another.

There is no correct answer. Better said, there might be a number of correct answers. Or none at all.

The responsibility of deciding the right path to take is entirely upon you.

That’s a lot of responsibility, and it can be paralyzing.

It’s no wonder that in many organizations the creative process often stalls after the brainstorming, whereas generating ideas is open-ended, and in sense infinitely hopeful. Having to pare those ideas down is restrictive, tedious and at times scary.

The good news is that understanding the creative process as a problem-solving tool is ultimately liberating.

For one, all of those left-brainers with well-honed rational skills will find themselves far more creative than they ever thought. They’ll discover that their talents for organization, abstraction and clarity are very much required to be a true creative thinker.

Viewing creativity as problem-solving also makes the whole process far less intimidating, even though it might lose some of its glamour and mystery.

Moreover, since creative problems are open to rational analysis, they can be broken down into smaller components that are easier to address.

Best of all, the very act of problem-solving, of organizing and trying making sense of things helps generate new ideas. Paradoxically, thinking within a box may be one of the most effective brainstorming techniques there is.

That may be what Charles Eames meant when he added, "I welcome constraints."

Without some sort of structure to your creative thinking, you’re just flailing about. For a while you might feel like you’re making progress, generating a great mess of ideas that might hold some potential. But in order to turn those ideas into something truly innovative, your best bet is to build your box and play by the rules of your own creation.