Want to see real creativity? Stay inside the box

We’ve heard it more times than we care to remember: what we need is some out-of-the-box thinking. We could solve this chronic problem if only we could step out of the box. Golly, J.P., that’s a really out-of-the-box idea!

Apparently, if we’re brave enough to step out of that bad, bad box, we can accomplish anything. Thinking creatively means ignoring rules and constraints, or even pretending they don’t exist.

That’s a southbound projectile from a northbound steer. Real creativity is put to the test within the box. In fact, that’s where it really shines.

Don’t be surprised: it’s actually much easier to think outside the box than within its confines. When you’re working outside the box, you don’t face rules, or boundaries, or assumptions. If you want to throw convention aside, you can do it. If you want to throw proven practices out the window, have at it. You have the freedom to create your own world.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with thinking outside the box. At times, it’s absolutely essential – such as when one of your facilities explodes and showers a neighborhood with toxic ash.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of operating outside the box. We’ve been shoved into reality, facing a variety of limitations. What kind of limitations? Budgets, supervisors’ opinions and prejudices, the nature of the marketplace — there’s a long list. Even though the box may have been given a bad name, it’s where most of us have to spend our time.

And no matter how much we may fret about those limits, inside that box is where we need to prove ourselves.

Please excuse the inevitable sports analogy, but do consider a baseball player who belts ball after ball over 450 feet. Unfortunately, this player has a wee problem: they can’t place those hits between the foul lines, so they result in harmful strikes instead of game-winning home runs. To the out-of-the-box advocates, they’re a mighty slugger who deserves admiration, but to their teammates and the fans, they’re a loser who just can’t get on base. Players may not like the fact they have to limit their hits to between the foul poles, but that’s one of the realities of the game they chose to play.

The same is true of ideas and approaches. The most dazzling and impressive tactic is essentially useless if it doesn’t offer a practical, realistic way to address the need or application. Like baseball players, we may not like the realities, but we have to operate within their limits.

Often, I’ve seen people blame the box for their inability or unwillingness to create something workable. For example, back in my ad agency days, I remember fellow writers and designers complaining about the limitations of projects. If it was a half-page ad, they didn’t feel they could truly be creative unless the space was expanded to a full page. If they were given a full page, they demanded a spread. Handed a spread, they’d fret because it wasn’t a TV commercial. If the project became a TV commercial with a $25,000 budget, they’d grouse about not having a $50,000 budget.

Yet the greatest artists of all time didn’t complain about what they didn’t have; they worked their magic using what they did. Monet captured the grace and beauty of France astonishingly well within the bounds of a canvas. Donatello exposed the breathtaking emotion that lurked within ordinary chunks of marble. Think Beethoven ever whined because there were only 88 keys on the piano?

I admire what the best of my peers can accomplish in less-than-favorable circumstances. There were brilliant commercials developed with minimal budgets and hand-held cameras. Black-and-white ads that outperformed their colorful competitors. Simple postcards that grabbed the attention of (and business from) jaded consumers.

You see, creativity isn’t hampered or blocked by limits. It actually flowers in response to those limits. When it’s forced to remain inside the box, it makes the most of everything it can find in that box. Real creativity is driven by a need to create. When Monet approached a blank canvas, it’s safe to say that he didn’t agonize over its size. He wanted to capture something he’d seen and share how it looked through his eyes. The size of the canvas was incidental to his talent and desire.

Think about Apollo 13. NASA didn’t have the luxury of flying supplies or extra tools to the crew. They couldn’t rewrite the laws of physics. The rapidly shrinking timeline meant their box kept getting smaller and less forgiving. And yet they arrived upon a solution that was creative; more important, three astronauts lived to share the story.

The next time someone tells you the real solution involves stepping outside the box, challenge them to think and work harder. Their most brilliant solution may well be lurking in a corner of that familiar box.