How to foster creativity through constraints

working on creative at an agency

Why your creative marketing team needs constraints

Your creative team is the heart of your marketing operations. And when it’s time for them to tackle a big project, your first instinct may be to remove any constraints and give them all the room they need to innovate. However, it’s been proven that creatives actually need constraints to guide their work and to allow inspiration to flourish.

Balance is the key to creative inspiration

By learning how to use constraints and make them empower—rather than hinder—your creatives, they’ll be able to produce far better work than if your team had no constraints at all. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start doubling down on adding constraints. Even too much of a good thing has its downsides. The key is balance, so you can build a clear framework for your team to innovate from.

What are constraints?

Before we dive in, we first need to define the kinds of constraints placed on creative marketing teams.

Harvard researchers have identified three categories of creative constraints:

  • Output constraints—control the end result of the creative process. Determines what the final deliverable should and should not contain.
  • Input constraints—limitations such as time, human capital, funds, and other materials that could be used in service of creative activities.
  • Process constraints—steps creatives have to follow to deliver their project. This includes rules used during brainstorming sessions, outlines, revisions, critique sessions, and so on.

What are the barriers to creativity and innovation in the workplace?

When creativity is negatively affected in the workplace, it’s usually because of an imbalance of constraints. Either there are too many constraints being placed on a project, or there are too few. The goal is to strike a healthy balance that gives your creative team the support they need to work at their best.

“Working with constraints allows my creativity to flow. Within the constraints of a tight deadline or a tight character count, for example, I find I can let my creativity loose while having something to guide my effort. It’s the difference between a blank page and a writing prompt. One feels overwhelming, there’s too much freedom, while the other gives you a nudge that you can take any direction you like.” — Sarah Charrouf, Content Manager, Brainrider

  • Step away from micromanagement.
    Numerous checkups at every minor stage of the process, non-negotiable and tight deadlines, unprecedented revisions and rewrites—these are all signs that your team is having their full potential blocked by a manager who is a little too hands-on.
  • Keep briefs crystal clear.
    Vague briefs often describe the project without applying enough constraints—no deadlines, objectives, KPIs, target audience, etc. This will only lead to frustrated creatives and stakeholders who aren’t happy with the end result.
  • Watch out for the fear of failure.
    The constant pressure of too many constraints combined with the expectation to outperform their previous successes can lead to anxiety, imposter syndrome, and an overall fear of failure that nips any creative endeavor in the bud.
  • Know what your team needs.
    Your creative team may lack the resources that they need to accomplish the projects assigned to them. In other words, they may be working with too many input constraints. This can be a lack of resources like time, capacity, tools, software, and devices.

6 ways constraints can creatively inspire your marketing

Having the right balance of constraints helps your creative marketing teams define the goals, processes, and resources they’ll need to take on a project. That’s easier said than done, so let’s figure out how exactly a balanced approach to constraining creativity can be leveraged to support your team.

1. Organize and focus your productivity

Process constraints support creativity throughout the production stage. By dividing a large project into different stages or steps, your team will be able to better focus their creative energy rather than being overwhelmed by trying to tackle the whole project at once.

“Some clients we work with have specific guidelines around what we can and can’t say and how many characters we can use in our work—these are the clients I enjoy working with the most. It’s so fun to brainstorm ideas that fit into our tight constraints until landing on the solution that feels just right. This is how I do my best work.” — Sarah Charrouf, Content Manager, Brainrider

2. Guide your brainstorm sessions

Use constraints to drive your brainstorming sessions. Instead of beginning a session with a blank slate, try starting with the key objectives (output constraints) that the project needs to fulfill. Encourage teammates to question, debate, and discuss these objectives. From there, you might land on a few innovative ways on how these goals can be met.

3. Define your objectives

The clearer your objectives are, the easier they’ll be for your creative team to work with. Try seeing if they adhere to SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) to determine how useful they’ll be.

4. Encourage risk-taking

Teach your team that failure is okay, and that it’s even good as long as they can learn from mistakes. This approach can help loosen any hesitations about risk-taking and encourage them to innovate around the constraints you’ve established. But even if you encourage your team to think outside the box, it’s often difficult to motivate them to do so. Start by giving your team the room to fail in a safe environment, like an internal training session.

5. Rejig your team structure

People count as input constraint resources, and if the current team setup isn’t working then it makes sense to change it. You can pair up people who don’t usually work together, or move a few people off the project if there are too many chefs in the kitchen.

6. Keep track of what worked and what didn’t

When all is said and done, you’ll want to keep track of how your creative team worked by measuring their performance against the constraints you’ve established. Did they meet your output constraints or innovate beyond your expectations? Were the input constraints too tight or overabundant? Did the process constraints help guide production or were they too strict? By answering these questions, you’ll know how to adjust these constraints for next time.

How our creative marketing teams make the most out of constraints

At Brainrider, our creative teams work within a variety of constraints to meet the needs and objectives of our clients. As a creative marketing agency, we expect our clients to come to us with challenges that their teams don’t have the time or the resources to solve. Being the creative experts, it’s up to our team to solve these problems while typically working under constraints like tight deadlines, brand guidelines, project KPIs, and more. By using these constraints to guide our creative work and meet client objectives, we’re able to work smart and find innovative solutions to the challenges that come our way.

Lawrence Stewen
Lawrence Stewen
Senior Content Specialist