Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs & Creative Constraints

Dr. Seuss has published more best selling children’s books than anyone. One in particular, has a surprising story behind it.

Back in 1960, after publishing The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss’ editor, Bennett Cerf, challenged him to a bet. He proposed that Dr. Seuss write another book, but this time to only use 50 different words. The Cat in the Hat used 255 words itself, so 50 was quite a downsize, but Dr. Seuss was naturally up to the challenge.

The result? Green Eggs and Ham, one of the most popular children’s books of all time.

If you were curious, these were the 50 words: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

That simple little constraint resulted into one of the most recognized books in history. Would it have ever been written had it not been for that bet? Perhaps not. Moreover, the role of constraints is a trick we can all learn to use.

Think outside the box. Break the rules. We’ve heard it all when it comes to unleashing our creativity. The funny thing is, thinking outside the box isn’t always the best move. Sometimes the box is exactly what we need to truly discover our creativity and unleash it.

Here are 4 reasons why constraints are your friend when it comes to creative endeavors.

Constraints Provide a Foundation

First and foremost, constraints provide a basis to create from. They are like building blocks that give us clear direction and keep us grounded.

Sometimes we simply don’t know how or where to start. Using some well chosen constraints can provide clarity in where to begin.

Constraints Unlock the Mind

Although this seems counter intuitive, constraints allow us to shift how we think about a problem. We tend to think in a typical pattern and the only way to break out of this mode of thought is to shake things up. Constraints provide a means to do that.

They break us away from our routine approaches and allow our subconscious mind to explore new connections.

Constraints Promote Deeper Exploration

When we try new things, it is natural to combine a few different knowns to come up with something that appears different. Constraints on the other hand force us to dive deeper into a particular area.

Instead of skimming the surface of a possibility, we explore every permutation and find a richer experience within our limited options.

Constraints Keep You On Task

In every creative endeavor it’s easy to get out of control. We get excited about different approaches and try to put together a jumble of ideas, when they really don’t fit.

It’s in these cases that constraints can help filter out the noise and focus our energy on the ideas and solutions that actually make sense. This ultimately saves a lot of time and keeps us from going down the wrong path.

Dr. Seuss

I love Dr. Seuss quotes and this one sums it up perfectly. Constraints force you to think different and by doing so, you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with in the process.

The trick is finding the right constraints in the first place. This is easier said than done. Too many constraints and you’ll suffocate your creativity to the point that things are boring and stale. Too few and you’ll be overwhelmed with choice that results in nonsensical babble.

There are always the obvious constraints, like if you are writing a book, you’ll need words in it. Then there are the creative constraints, those that will move you toward clarity of purpose. These constraints provide you a clear direction and force you to think a bit different. Some examples:

  • Limiting color, like black and white or shades of blue
  • Limiting word count, like 6 word stories, a famous one from Hemingway is, For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
  • Limiting medium, like print only versus digital or mobile
  • Limiting material, like using only recycled objects

The ways to apply constraints are infinite, but they also vary based on the situation. If you can find the correct ones for your task, you’ll be able to push your creativity into new and interesting domains.

Embrace the constraint.

Writer that designs — or is it the other way around? VP of eCommerce at function of beauty, creator of t-shirts, and lover of books.