How Setbacks and Constraints Enhance Your Creativity

Pathways to enhanced creativity and innovation

It can be easy to view setbacks and constraints as the enemy of creation.

But setbacks can be seen as opportunities, and constraints can be a way to enhance creativity. The key lesson is to know how to reframe our thinking.

There are numerous examples of setbacks leading to gains. The artist Janet Echelman was on deadline for an exhibition when her art supplies did not reach her in India. While watching fishermen working with their nets, she got inspired to take a new approach, to form sculptures made from nets that, when suspended from ceilings, created spatial forms with light materials. Janet collaborated with fishermen creating a series of netted sculptures that redefined what sculpture can be.

Setbacks in the form of accidents and failures have led to many great unintended inventions. Teflon was the result of a lab accident at DuPont. Penicillin was discovered when a Petri dish was accidentally contaminated by mold from an open window. The idea for Post-it Notes was a consequence of trying to develop a strong adhesive, but experiments ended up producing a weak, reusable adhesive. Safety glass emerged in 1903, when a dropped glass flask shattered but did not spray shards of glass. Microwave ovens were an accidental consequence of radar-related research. These were all serendipitous discoveries that required their inventors to see results in a new light.

Setbacks can also be an opportunity to pivot. Honda’s factories were destroyed in WWI. Its founder used the opportunity to turn the company’s small engines focus into motorized bicycles, which became popular in fuel-scarce Japan. This paved the way for its auto business.

Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her news anchor job early in her career due to being “unfit for television.” She used that failure to reinvent herself and launch her iconic talk show.

Why does this matter? Everyone has suffered setbacks. How you view them and take advantage of their opportunity makes all the difference in the world. It is important to internalize the notion that that setbacks offer the opportunity to reset.

Everyone must also work within constraints. Changing your view to realize that constraints can in fact enhance creativity is also essential.

Constraints that come with the territory

The absence of constraints is the enemy of art, Orson Welles said. This applies particularly well to set design, a remarkable art form that thrives on constraints. The limitations of the stage space, budget, and time available create a framework within which the designer’s creativity must operate. Rather than hindering the process, these constraints serve as a catalyst for ingenious solutions and artistic expression. The finite dimensions of the stage demand that the designer optimizes the available space, encouraging innovative use of levels, versatile set pieces, and creative staging. Budget constraints require resourcefulness, thinking strategically about materials, construction techniques, and repurposing existing elements.

And then there are the time constraints—production schedules—which may require streamlining processes and designs. All of these constraints must be considered while adhering to the constraints imposed by the script and the intentions of the playwright to create an environment that supports and enhances the storytelling. Within this realm, the stage becomes a new world, transporting the audience into the intended reality.

How constraints led to new style

Filmmaking provides several examples of how self-imposed constraints lead to new styles and techniques. Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg reacted to big budget Hollywood films by creating an avant-garde style by using only handheld cameras and natural lighting. The result was the influential Dogme 95 filmmaking movement.

Financing drove much of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. Rather than compromise his vision due to tight budgets, Lee improvised using black and white stock footage to recreate key scenes. Before that, Orson Welles’s 1948 film Macbeth was unable to include large sets/scenes due to budget constraints. Welles took a minimalist approach, using stark shadows and lighting, creating in the process dramatic film noir styles. And even before that, in the mid-1600s, the Baroque painter Georges de la Tour could not afford studio lighting. His work with single candlelit scenes became highly influential.

Other iconic cases where constraints have led to a which something unique? Under constraints from both site and client, Frank Lloyd Wright designed his iconic Fallingwater house. Wright had to design around the waterfall and incorporate the site’s unique features into the home, using affordable local materials like stone and wood, which added to the natural integration with the surroundings.

Self-imposed constraints have driven writing as well. Dr. Seuss’ classic Green Eggs and Ham was written on a bet that he couldn’t compose an entire book using just 50 different words. Oulipo, a group of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians, sought to create works using constrained writing techniques. Oulipo writers like Georges Perec intentionally wrote under bizarre constraints to spur experimentation. Perec wrote the 300-page novel La Disparition, translated into English as A Void, without using the letter “e” even once.

Using constraints for educational purposes

Engineering courses are a fertile ground to test ideas. My own institution, Northwestern University, has had for many years a biomedical engineering design course focused on developing solutions for global health challenges, particularly in resource-limited settings like those found in parts of Africa.

Designing for Africa requires a different approach compared to designing for well-equipped healthcare facilities in developed countries like the United States. Power may be scarce, so devices need to be powered by alternative sources such as solar panels, rechargeable batteries, or hand-cranked generators. Devices must be simple and easy to use with minimal training required and designed for use by non-specialists or community health workers. They also need to be rugged, easy to transport, and able to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as extreme temperatures, dust, and humidity. Cost is a significant barrier in resource-limited regions, so devices need to be designed with low-cost materials and manufacturing processes.

Yet these constraints have resulted in several innovative devices. The Embrace Infant Warmer, a low-cost alternative to traditional incubators, uses a phase-change material to regulate temperature and costs only a fraction of traditional incubators. The Lifebox pulse oximeter, a low-cost vital signs monitor, can be used in various settings, from hospitals to remote clinics, and can measure multiple vital signs.

Many other universities, including Rice, MIT, UC Berkeley, Texas A&M, Penn State, and the University of Michigan, offer similar design courses with a specific emphasis on Africa. These courses and programs often involve collaborations with local partners, field visits, and interdisciplinary teams, allowing students to gain hands-on experience in designing biomedical devices and technologies tailored to the specific needs and challenges of African communities.

The lessons

Looking through the lens of constraints can drive creativity, while setbacks offer an opportunity to reset. Louis Pasteur put it best: “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Serendipity is the byproduct of having your eyes open.


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