Not to be confused with restraint which is much more about self-control, constraint is about finding the edges of the page before you begin, it is about knowing what limits you have in terms of resources. It is about must haves and must nots. And to be honest not something I previously worried too much about, but now I see constraint in lots of work that I do and inevitably seek them out if they are not so explicit.
In many ways the 28 Days of Writing project is built around the concept of healthy constraint, about creating an edge where often there isn’t one. A rule to stick to and enjoy the creative challenge. 28 days of writing with a time constraint on how long you can spend every day.
Twitter was such an interesting medium to write through. The constraint of writing within a specific character limit is just second nature now – I always try not to abbreviate or shorten words unnecessarily too. Back when the education community didn’t know it’s tweet from it’s blog it was a fascinating challenge to share your thoughts with such brevity. In many ways this is the most enduring feature of the Twitter platform and certainly something I still enjoy.
Another time when I observed the impact of constraint in a rather unexpected place was a Year 3 classroom in London. The class were all set to build some versions or prototypes of their new house/dwelling ideas they had been intricately designing on paper. Detailed diagrams and rough drafts overlapped on the tables as the class clamoured to discover what was next for their ideas. LEGO makes a similar introduction when used in most classroom, eyes light up and ideas roll over in the mind. However something unexpected happened once construction of the next prototypes commenced. Constraint.
Boys and girls grabbed LEGO baseboards to build on and suddenly fell into a steady rhythm of stacking bricks around the edges, the cuboid house once again asserted it’s dominance. It was a fascinating thing to reflect upon for Meshendia (the classteacher) and I once all was said and done. The LEGO had in fact imposed its own constraint to the process and those baseboards even more so. What were dreamy, intricate designs on paper soon became cookie-cutter boxes in LEGO.
I think this happens a great deal once we are up to our armpits in the making process, the standard classroom doesn’t quite cater for the resources our ideas truly need. Why would they? After all if we are not given enough signals of the constraints in the early stages of a process when we are encouraging new ideas, those ideas will grow and expand without an edge to them.
I was with a school in Perth last week and the very same thinking task for one group of 3 teachers produced completely different results compared with another. The reason. Simply the size of the paper they chose to work on. One group had a large sheet of flipchart paper and their ideas were more numerous, sprawling and often tangential. The other had an A4 piece of paper, the group’s ideas were fewer, focused, more potent. Same task, just a different piece of paper. For one the edges were tighter, closer and more constrained – for the other much more open and freer. The constraint, or lack of, impacted on the type of thinking the group achieved.