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Imposing Limits

When we think about the word “limit”, it usually comes with a negative connotation. It means there’s a cap to what’s possible.

Sometimes however, imposing a limit can be really helpful when we’re trying to find a creative solution to a problem. It forces us to think differently and use the resources available to us. Often, when we’re faced with a blank canvas where the possibilities are limitless, we become paralysed.

Creative Limits

So what limitations should we impose on our work?


The most common limitation is time. We’ve all experienced this from being young at school. You had to get to school on time, the homework had to be in the next day and the school play had to be ready by a certain date. This prepared us for work, where the client or boss needs something completing by a certain time.

When faced with a deadline, people get things done. When it’s not optional we usually find a solution one way or another.

Set Yourself a Deadline

If the problem you’re trying to solve currently doesn’t have a time restriction, set yourself a date and time when it needs to be completed by. Create a schedule by working backwards from this date and set micro deadlines for each task. Make these deadlines non-negotiable. If you’re serious about these deadlines, you’ll find a way to meet them.

Physical Resources

When we limit the resources available to us, it forces us to become resourceful with what we do have. It makes us think in ways that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

One of the most common resources (other than time) is money. This may already be a limitation for a lot of us, but try to limit it even further if possible. You may need to borrow tools from friends and family or use your local library for books. Do you currently have anything that could be repurposed to make something new?


Limiting the space that we have can make us think creatively about how we use it. A good example is a room in a house. This naturally has spacial limitations. If you want the room to fit a certain purpose, maybe even multiple purposes, you have to think about the objects you place in the room. How big are they, can they serve more than one purpose, what’s the most efficient way the objects can be arranged in the space, how will they be used and does the arrangement make the room easy to navigate?

The same can be true when creating something on a two dimensional surface, like a sheet of paper. By setting limits on the page size we need to think about the best way to solve the creative problem inside the space that we do have. This may mean cutting non-critical items that you may have otherwise added. It may also mean that you need to change the concept altogether.


Sometimes we don’t have the best tools for the job. How else could we cut the wood in half or draw a perfect circle?

Limiting the tools could lead to a more effective solution. For example, if designing a piece of artwork or an advert, limiting yourself to one or two colours or using only one brush could be a refreshing change.

This can also apply to disciplines like writing. Limiting your word count will make you think about what you really need to include and edit out.

Give It a Try

The next time you’re trying to solve a creative problem, try imposing some limits on the project. You might just find a solution you weren’t looking for.

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Facing a Blank Canvas

It’s a common problem. You sit down to write, draw, design or start your creative project… and then nothing. Where is the creativity hiding? Why aren’t the ideas flowing? Sometimes just starting and seeing where things go can work, but sometimes we need a structured process to get things moving. The process doesn’t need to be complicated. I sometimes use one similar to the following:

  1. Choose a subject or theme
  2. Research the subject
  3. Mind map
  4. Create some draft layout
  5. Refine

Choose a Subject or theme

Usually when we sit down (or stand up) to work we already have a subject or theme in mind. If not, choose one. If you’re writing a novel, will it be sci-fi, horror, romance? If you’re taking a photograph, will it be of a person, an object or an environment?

Research the subject

Before generating ideas it can be a good idea to fill your mental pool with knowledge around the subject. If you’re creating something that’s horror themed, watch some good horror films while you take relevant notes. Read some books. Save a bunch of reference images in a folder. Learn some of the history.

Mind Map

This is one of my favourite parts of the process. If you’re not sure what a mind map is, I’d recommend you do a little research online. Essentially you begin with one word or phrase “Sci-Fi” for example and write it in the centre of a sheet of paper or your digital canvas. You then draw a few branches sprouting away from this word. On each of these sprouting branches, write a word that’s associated with the root phrase. In this example “science” would be a good word. “Fiction”, “space”, “aliens” and “future” would also make great branch words. You then sprout off smaller branches from these secondary words with words and phrases associated with this like “experiment” and “test tube” if you branching off from “science”.

The important thing is to get everything out of your head and down on this mind map, even if you don’t think the words or phrases are good enough. No judgement at this stage. As they say “it’s better out than in”. Through word association, ideas and connections will start to appear and you can keep going until you’ve exhausted your mental capacity.

Create Some Drafts

You’ve chosen a subject, done some research and put some ideas down in the form of a mind map. Now it’s time to create some draft layouts. This can be applied to any creative discipline from writing to design to creating a business plan. Use broad strokes to begin with. It’s best not to trap yourself with too much detail just yet. You want to get a feel for the whole picture (or piece of writing) before narrowing in on the details.

It’s important at this stage to explore numerous options. Have fun, experiement, turn things upside down. What if who you imagined to be the good guy in your story was actually the bad guy? What if instead of capturing a wide landscape photo, you zoomed right in to a specific part? Move things around and see what could be possible.


Once you’ve explored some drafts, it’s time to choose one and go into more depth with it. This is when you can really focus in on the details and polish the work up. Every now and again step back and look at the piece as a whole to see if it still holds up or if you need to adjust or if in fact one of your previous drafts might work better in practice.

This is a brief overview of a process that can be used when facing a blank canvas. Try it if you get yourself in a pickle and adapt it to fit your workflow or discipline.