When it comes to creativity and limitations, I think we have it all wrong.

As a designer, if you were to ask me how I prefer to work—with no restrictions or within a tight set of guidelines—my natural reaction would be to say, “Give me freedom!” But practically speaking, that’s probably the worst way to work on a project. If I have no starting point, no timeline, and no framework to work within, I’ll stare at a blank page with a thousand possibilities floating in my head. For hours. Or days.

When we fight restrictions we make our job exponentially more difficult.

When we fight restrictions we make our job exponentially more difficult. This ends up being a lesson we have to learn over and over again. Or maybe that’s just me. There’s something in our nature that wants unlimited freedom when it comes to our creativity. Actor and director Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” He was absolutely right. So how do we work this often-despised concept into our lives as designers and artists?

Learn to Love the Challenge

We all want to improve as artists. Or at least we should. When you have limitations, it forces you to be more creative—to think differently. Every project that has a different set of constraints challenges you in a different area. But each limitation rules out certain possibilities and guides you to the right solution. Complete freedom in any project should be a red flag. You will struggle to meet the goal when your options are unlimited.

Complete freedom in any project should be a red flag.

What if you were asked to create a new stage design on a very tight budget? That really narrows down what you can do. But some of the best stage design ideas I’ve seen have been the result of being forced to create within a tiny budget. And you have to admit that when you find a solution to fit a project you thought was impossible at first, you’re pretty darn proud of your work. The key is to see these limitations as a challenge rather than a hindrance or a burden. Find out up front what you’re working with, and view the constraints as a way to improve your craft.

Constraints are a Must

When I’m working on a new design project, one of the first things I do is to list out the framework within which I need to stay. Most of the time I call it the “specs”—sounds a little freer than “limitations”. I list the goals and purpose of the design, the timeline, the content, the sizes, the style, etc. This gives me a good overview of the direction I need to go, so then I can start developing concepts.

At this point, my concepts are limited to one or two directions because I have some good guidelines. I’m not all over the place, wasting time pursuing options that will never work. This doesn’t mean it’s not difficult or frustrating sometimes, especially when the guidelines are very tight.

Most of the time restraints are already in place when you first get a project. In the church world, these are often in the form of time or budget. But what if you have complete freedom? What if there are no deadlines, no budget, and the sky is the limit? Many people are afraid to tell an artist or designer exactly what they need, for fear of stifling the creative process. If that’s the case, you’ll need to set a few constraints for yourself. This is a discipline that’s hard to do, but worth it in the end.

Don’t be afraid to set your own timeline when a client or ministry says, “There’s no deadline for this.” And stick to it as if your job depended on it. If there is no design direction for that logo or print piece you’re working on, create a style board on Pinterest. Run it by the person who will be approving your design to see if you can narrow down the style for the project. There are many different ways to create your own constraints for a project—the hard part is having the discipline to do it.

Restrictions and limitations can improve design and creativity by making you consider the tough questions.

Don’t be fooled again when complete freedom comes your way in a project. Restrictions and limitations can improve design and creativity by making you consider the tough questions—the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. Without limitations, there’s far less potential for creativity.