In 2001, two film students challenged themselves to create a film.

But there was a catch.

Australians James Wan and Leigh Whannell neither had a star cast nor a big budget to achieve their creative vision.

So they forced themselves to get the entire project done in just one room with a handful of characters.

The result?

They ended up giving birth to one of the most recognized & talked about horror franchises in the history of the genre.

It was the movie “SAW.”

Similarly, another British director, Steven Knight (from the Peaky Blinders fame), decided to shoot an entire story using just one man driving around his car.

That was literally the whole cast, setting, and story.

The resulting feature film, Locke (2013), won several awards & critical praise for the solo actor Tom Hardy.

Now, why am I talking about these examples?

It’s because we’re often misguided about the way creativity really works, and I’d like to set the record straight for young content creators.

Business gurus often preach the need to think outside the box, the box being a set of traditional or established ideas. The motive is to encourage you to go wild & crazy without restrictions.

But freedom often has the opposite effect on many artists – it creates “choice paralysis” as we can’t decide where to go.

When we start with a completely blank piece of paper, it has endless possibilities, so we often end up not writing anything.

Or think of what would happen if you visited an ice cream store with 10,000 flavors, with each one being free to try out.

You would soon go into a sugar coma after tasting 10,000 scoops, and probably face trouble deciding between chocolate mint chip or strawberry cheesecake pudding.

But if they only had chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, you’d be able to make the choice faster.

Choice paralysis is the reason why we spend hours browsing Netflix’s catalog to pick a show, and the same amount of time scrolling through Zomato in a quest to decide what to order for lunch.

In both cases, there’s too much liberty, which hampers quick decision making.

The solution?

Start getting specific by using creative constraints.

“Just create a nice logo” … is a vague goal.

Instead, try this brief: “Let’s make it in an hour. Use only two colors. It should have “nature” elements. And it must contain the letter M.”

When taking briefs, push your client/boss for details & exact visual references to get specific answers for driving your creation.

Some basic points you can cover are:

  • Who is our target audience?
  • Which brands are we competing with?
  • Which platforms are we going to publish this piece on?
  • What’s our singular objective?
  • By when do we need this done? (ETA)

On the other hand, if you’re creating something independently without supervision or instructions from third parties, use prompts & challenges to get yourself out of nasty blocks.

Here’s what these prompts should look like:

  • Explain your business plan in 10 slides, no more
  • Make a recipe with just 3 ingredients
  • Write an ad using only 5 words
  • Sell this pen to me in 30 seconds
  • Create a campaign with a $15 budget

Remember, scarcity is the mother of innovation. Actually, Sundar Pichai of Google said something similar, “Scarcity breeds clarity.”

Addressing his employees after the blowback from the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote “Scarcity … drives focus and creativity that ultimately leads to better products that help people all over the world,” he writes. That’s the opportunity in front of us today, and I’m excited for us to rise to the moment again.”

As Minda Zetlin comments in Inc. on Pichai’s outlook on tough times, “And just like that, the unhappy news that Google is facing economic uncertainty and must hire fewer people than planned is transformed into a call to action meant to inspire employees to greater innovation.”

Coming back to our discussion, here’s the key takeaway.

When you think inside a “small box,” you’re forcing your mind muscles to solve problems with limited time & resources – this will actually speed things up!

Creativity isn’t about doing random things that come to your mind out of thin air. It actually means defining problems well and using available resources to come up with solutions.

This is why I tell my agency clients never to give me 100% freedom. I ask specific questions & request at least 5 references. This helps me consistently deliver work that’s likely to get approved in a few rounds.

Remember, clients often don’t know what they want, so it’s our job as marketers & content creators to push them for more details.

So the next time someone asks you to “think outside the box,” start by defining it.

One Comment

  1. […] I talked about this technique at length in a previous article. […]

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