Constrained Doodling

Generating ideas is a whole lot of fun. It is chaotic, messy and divergent. To come up with creative ideas though, some constraint is necessary.

“Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.”
– Jason Fried, Co-Founder of 37Signals

Think about it. You’re sitting there in a boring meeting – and who hasn’t? It seems like time is standing still, and you question your existence. In hand, is a pen ready to strike paper, but not just yet. You think about what you’re about to doodle. The paper is so clean and crisp. You certainly don’t want to ruin it with something unplanned. You think through, deep and hard, before putting pen to paper. Your mind draws blank. Frustrated, you just start doodling what you always doodle. As a matter of fact, if you collect all the scrap paper from every meeting you’ve been a part of, chances are that you’ve drawn the exact same thing almost every time. Why does that happen? Constraints – or in this case, lack of constraints. The vastness of unbounded space right in front of you on that piece of paper provides virtually no constraints. You are free to be as creative as you want to be, and yet you fall back to the familiar. You fall back to the old. The usual. You might be an excellent doodler. Your drawing might be ridiculously detailed, but often what you doodle tends to be the same.

This is basically a representation of what happens in real life – albeit in bigger proportions. You sit there in a focus group, a meeting, or a workshop. The room bursts with natural light coming in from the floor to ceiling windows. You take a seat on a $500 Herman Miller chair designed meticulously to make you comfortable. An assortment of sticky notes and sharpies are placed exactly within reach as you extend your arms on the plush wooden table. The task is not simple, mind you. You were specifically selected to be part of the team that gets to come up with new ideas to drive coffee sales for your company. You feel privileged. Empowered. Brimming with confidence. Your mind? Lol. Drawing blank – like it did back in that boring meeting. But this is no boring meeting. You’re in arguably the best position to come up with creative ideas. The room was scientifically designed to promote creativity. What is going on? Constraints. And just like when you were about to doodle, lack of constraints.

That is why we need techniques to drive creativity – and there are many. Each technique constrains you one way or another to make you think in unorthodox ways. One of the techniques, for example, is SCAMPER. SCAMPER is an acronym that stands for “Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Reverse. The technique is simple, and is quite effective in unearthing creative and new ideas. However, like other creative techniques, it does not guarantee that the ideas generated will solve the problem you’re working on.


Let’s take the example above. This creative milk packaging is called “+hem” by Efkan Cetin. It’s incredibly smart packaging. It is designed to cater for people that want to drink milk by simply rotating the cap off the top (as shown in the top half of the image) and for people that want to use it as a cup to add their favorite cereal to (as shown in the bottom half of the image). This concept could’ve easily been the result of applying the SCAMPER technique. It combines two uses in a beautifully designed package. Great, right? Not so fast. Let’s assume (to make a point) that the team behind this were looking for packaging design that would minimize the space it takes on shelves. After all, shelf space in stores is infamously known to be expensive. If that were the problem, is this really a solution that addresses the problem? I’d say it’s not. It is an innovative solution, but it fails to solve the problem identified. That is why you need an extra check after you’re done brainstorming using those creativity techniques. Whether or not the idea generated solves the identified problem isn’t always clear-cut, so you want to make sure you address all potential solutions and cross-check them.
An alternative way that has always worked for me is plain ol’ research. No techniques, no tools, no tricks. All you’re doing is looking at adjacent markets and completely different markets for inspiration. Then you’d steal some inspiration for the project you’re working on. Now clearly there are no guidelines for doing this research. However, we do need some constraints – and the constraints come in the form of where to look for inspiration.

Let’s assume you’re tasked with driving coffee bean sales for a roaster. In order to seek inspiration you look at adjacent markets (cafes for example) and completely different markets. One of the aspects you might’ve uncovered in initial research (through shadowing and interviewing customers for example) would be self expression – that customers see coffee as a means of self expression. So, you’d look at completely different products and services that your customers buy in order to express themselves. In this case, you’d look at products like shoes, watches, and fragrances. The reason for picking these markets and products is because they are bought by customers wanting to fulfill the same desire when buying coffee: self expression.

In this case, you might go ahead with ideas uncovered during research because you are certain that they solve the identified problem (in this case: positioning coffee as a means of self expression). There would be no need to cross-check the ideas uncovered.

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