Being schooled on creativity and innovation.
The Europeans may have discovered the New World, but they have yet to discover air conditioning. Although the weather outside is balmy and mild, I feel like I’m crammed into the hull of the Santa Maria. People are beginning to stare at the sweat dripping off my forehead. Maybe I have scurvy.
Or maybe I’m sweating because my Swiss professor doesn’t like my project. More likely, he doesn’t like me. I’m that old guy in the classroom who’s just a little too eager and asks too many questions, and he has probably had enough of my conceptual banter. I have the advantage of being fluent in English, whereas he has the advantage of actually knowing stuff.
There are several different projects going at once, but my assignment is to design a poster for a fictitious museum exhibit exploring the question: What is bad taste? The name of the exhibition is Böse Dinge (or Bad Things) and it’s both an affirmation and a critique of the design of objects in the twentieth century. The subject is both ambiguous and fascinating, but the parameters of the project are quite stifling, almost like the air in the classroom.
But my professor is trying to impress upon me a fundamental principle of design: Constraints stimulate creativity.
For instance, even though the subject of the poster is objects, I may not use an object to illustrate the concept. But rather than work within this constraint, I stubbornly ignore the directive. So I propose the use of a plastic flamingo as a universal symbol for kitsch objects. Beside the fact that this was a direct violation of the project parameters, my Swiss professor asks me: So where are you going to get an image of this plastic flamingo? And I say, From the interwebs, of course. He slowly shakes his head, as if he’s dealing with a complete moron, and says, If you did not create the image, you are not the master of the image.
Although I tend to agree with him, my head floods with exceptions to this new constraint. But no matter, I am here to learn, so I discard my concept and begin again.
This sweltering classroom is situated in the heart of the Basel School of Design, where I am reveling in the contradictions of Swiss graphic design. I am naturally drawn to the Swiss typography of the 1960s, where the pursuit of clarity yielded a kind of austere splendor, typified by former Basel teacher Armin Hofmann. But I am also fascinated by the groundbreaking work in the 1980s by fellow instructor Wolfgang Weingart, whose deconstructed typography fostered a sometimes incomprehensible and layered beauty.
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
These living legends are design titans, so if you’ve been exposed to graphic design in the last 50 years, then you’ve fallen under their influence. Although Hofmann is 93 and Weingart is 73, these men can be seen shuffling around from time to time. Seemingly intent on popping my star-struck bubble, one graduate student referred to Hofmann as an “old fool,” and said that Weingart was “mean as hell.”
And yet the influence of these curmudgeons on 20th century graphic design cannot be overstated, and with visible reverence, my professor leaned hard on their pioneering pedagogy. Whereas Hofmann innovated and established universal design principles, Weingart used them as a point of departure for more experimental design, and yet both made use of constraints in their formal teaching. Hofmann believed in the “simplification of the formal language and restraint in the treatment of the verbal message,” whereas Weingart, similarly, believed that the discipline of basic design exercises helped shape “visual sensitivity.”
The dominant influence of their teaching, more similar than disparate, relied heavily on mastering fundamental principles. And here I sit, in the same classrooms where they taught, struggling to learn. No wonder I’m sweating.
Both Hofmann and Weingart viewed the discipline of constraint as the starting point for creativity and innovation. That their creative paths quickly diverge only reinforces the idea that embracing boundaries can yield boundless ideas. From this point of view, I began to appreciate the limits my professor put on the project, and decided to play by the rules.
I now see my professor’s aesthetic—and perhaps those of his Swiss forebears—as less about a style or an attitude and more about asking questions. As he held me within the box while pushing me toward innovation, I found myself thinking a little more freely about the visual problem. As we discussed the project, I told him about an observation I made while traveling. And that is, the cathedrals of Europe have been turned into museums, and the museums have become cathedrals. And my question became: What does that say about us?
Mostly experimental, my resulting design intended to question the museum as the sacred space for the questions of our culture. Without imagery, the poster blends layered typography and contextual space to invite viewers into the conversation about good and bad things. Embracing a kind of measured ambiguity, the dimensional space of the museum as well as the dimensional object become the subject of the exhibition.
I found that the limitations of the project helped me frame and focus the problem, creating an opportunity to explore solutions with fresh eyes.
Of course we rarely need to look for constraints in the real world, but they do provide a starting point for a deadline to meet, a budget to keep and a client to please. What’s more, constraints force us to dig deeper, to shovel past superficial convention toward innovation.
That the proverbial box sparks creativity is not a new idea, but contemporary culture seems to have forgotten this timeless lesson. We need boundaries to be creative, to be pushed to look for new ways to solve problems. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to conform to what’s been done before. Whatever we may imagine creative freedom to be, it simply does not exist. All of life is bounded by constraints.
But not tonight. I will be dreaming of pink flamingoes that cannot be mine.