Stumbling Around the Cemetery
The way to unlock creativity can be counterintuitive.
We were standing in a cemetery in broad daylight, dumbstruck.
The challenge at hand was three-part: Create a story using both words and images. Let the narrative be inspired by a place written on a piece of paper drawn from a hat. Do it in a single afternoon.
As writers, editors and photographers at Journey, we were on a creative retreat, taking a day away from Real Work. This little creative challenge seemed pretty straightforward. We’re storytellers. This is what we do.
The place that chose us was Maplewood Cemetery, Charlottesville’s oldest graveyard. Surely there would be stories floating through the air like ghosts, we thought, as we walked to the site, leaving behind teams of colleagues dispatched elsewhere.
When we got there, we walked around for a while. Then we stared at various headstones. And took photos with our phones. And looked at more headstones.
Maybe we could tell a story about two friends who didn’t know each other while they were alive, then ended up being buried next to each other?
…Yeah, but how are we going to portray that visually? A story full of graveyard photos is going to fall flat…
The back-and-forth went on, and we talked through more ideas that had no arc or purpose, like a tripped-up printer spitting out pages with only a few lines of gibberish on them. Thirty minutes whittled away, then an hour. Pulses began to quicken.
While we still had no direction, the problem was starting to become clear. The task at hand was too open-ended. When given the freedom that we at times yearned for as creatives working for clients, we felt directionless. Paralyzed even.
Any kind of variability exists by virtue of what is constant.
The exercise was telling for us—for me. I realized that while there are some who might thrive in the wide-open, treeless field as creatives, I prefer to make my way through the woods, moving forward by choosing from a series of paths. Boundaries are essential to creativity.
And I’m not alone. Since then, I’ve come to see the way others purposefully embrace constraints in their work.
There’s painter Anna Bryant, who starts and finishes her small, bright oil paintings during the window of time when her child is napping. And graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who spent his entire career courting only a few fonts.
There’s even Ernest Vincent Wright, who outlawed the letter “e” from his 50,110-word book Gadsby, published in 1939. Wright tackled the book in five and a half months, with the “e” on his typewriter tied down with a piece of string. He even avoided abbreviations such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” that would contain the letter when written out. Other writers submit themselves to the form of the villanelle, sonnet or haiku.
For these artists, discovery and surprise seemed to be achieved through boundaries, not shut down by them.
As a writer, I wanted to understand how other creatives embraced—or eschewed—constraints in their work. How did they define them? When did they honor them, and when did they push back? How did they allow these boundaries to guide, but not steer, their work?
“I often tried to square the rigor of my education against the drama of my lived experience.”
One particular artist, Jessica Helfand, told me straightaway that constraints matter hugely to design. A design educator, writer and practitioner, Helfand explained that, during her early years, she grew up with a father who collected 19th-century propaganda posters—scenes with hyped-up visuals and loud words. Then she went to school, where Swiss design was supreme, in all its quiet, clean simplicity.
“I often tried to square the rigor of my education against the drama of my lived experience,” she said. Eventually, rather than insisting on freedom or structure, she learned to embrace both. In fact, she realized there is no freedom without structure. “Any kind of variability exists by virtue of what is constant,” she said, suggesting the metaphor of roller-skating with a friend. They pull you, you pull them.
For Helfand, there are two ways that constraints hijack the creative process. First, we see them as rules meant to be followed at all costs—which, she laughs, yields “something that looks like a brochure for a hospital.” The constraints become a straightjacket. Or, second, we introduce them too late in the process.
A grid system in graphic design is an example of constraints at work for good. “If you have a strong typographic grid,” Helfand says, “there’s this armature, this structure as the base of the design. You have these rules. And then you can break them.”
Helfand, who wrote her grad-school thesis on the history of the square and authored a book about charts, is personally interested in geometry as an open-ended constraint.
During the ’90s, for example, she found herself designing an employee-only website for Merrill Lynch, which was located in Japan. Only half of the company’s staff spoke English; the rest spoke Japanese. Helfand created a design based upon the proportions of a traditional Japanese tatami mat, a rectangular floor mat with a length exactly twice its width (a double square). According to custom, when laid out on the floor in multiples, the mats are arranged in a specific manner.
Translating this pattern to a 15-inch monitor, Helfand created a system called TatamiNet™ that helps graphic and interface designers organize a webpage. Within these parameters, there’s room to move and play.
Yet for creatives at work for clients, constraints don’t just arrive in the form of design grids or story assignments. We face budgets and deadlines. We have to find ways to do things faster and smarter without compromising the quality of the work.
Earl Cox of Richmond’s The Martin Agency calls it finding the win-win. “With these apparently mutually exclusive choices—be more cost efficient, come in on budget, do great creative work,” the chief strategy officer says, “the answer is not just to find a compromise, to do a little less of this and a little more of that. The ideal answer is to find a solution that’s both cost-efficient and brilliant.”
Easier said than done, to be sure. Yet in the hunt for the elusive win-win, we’re best armed with a clear definition of a single problem we’re trying to solve. Maybe an organization needs to make a certain amount of money by a certain day, or encourage its audience to attend an event or understand a problem in a certain way.
Cutting through the underbrush of small problems to get to a clear, focused opportunity requires people to be honest and vulnerable. Read: It ain’t easy. To get there, Cox calls upon two low-tech methods that haven’t failed him yet: research and listening.
When he and his team were helping Geico find a tagline, for example, their research told them something important: People already figured that if they called Geico, they would save money. But they also figured it would take forever. Inertia set in.
So Cox and his team attacked that misconception with the slogan, “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.” The “15 minutes” phrase was key.
“It was a nice problem to identify and let advertising address,” he says.
We, as strategists, designers and content-creators, might be tempted to think that more resources—more time, money, bandwidth—is the solution. Constraints can seem like the last thing we’d want for a creative project. Yet it’s really the opposite.
By silencing the noise of the many small problems we could address, we’re able to stare one important problem in the face. Then, we can begin to think about whether the solution is a magazine, a website or a poster; we can consider how it will look, and how the words should make people feel. What these parameters do is remove some of the options available to us, and with them, that paralyzed feeling we knew in the graveyard.
True, it was a few constraints that saved us that day. In the midst of all the sputtering, we began revisiting the elements of story—the essentials of characters, conflict and resolution that construct a narrative. Also, the deadline was coming.
We decided to wander to Timberlake’s Drug Store in downtown Charlottesville, an old-timey pharmacy and soda foundation with limeades and white-bread sandwiches. Discovering the Timberlake name among the weathered stones had driven us there in search of ideas, fragments, characters—anything—to construct a narrative. And milkshakes, of course, to refuel our thinking.
We sat near two older gentlemen who were sitting across from each other, shoulders stooped, both eating sandwiches and drinking soda. One of our photographers snapped a candid photo, and the moment was beautiful—the men were lost in their simple lunch, one with a drink almost to his lips, as if this was one of many such meals over the course of decades.
We had our characters, and we began imagining a conflict and a resolution, which would rest upon this moment of two men making amends. From there, the story came to us.