Working solo

Constraint as a seed for creativity

By Pawel Orzechowski and Derek Jones


Do you ever get the feeling that your head is bursting with thoughts and ideas? This can actually be counter-productive for your research. When it gets too much, your thinking might need to converge to help you move forward.

Think about haiku: three lines, five-seven-five syllables. Haiku are very restrictive but lead to such creative output that it is worth considering why. While abundance can be an interesting and (apparently) effective environment in which to work, the truly amazing comes from limited resources.

In architecture, there is an urban myth that the best architecture comes in times of recession: fewer projects and limited resources encourage more time and thinking applied to what is available, leading to significant innovation. Jugaad, jua kali and rasquachismo are all international flavours of ‘make do and mend’ cultures that have existed since the start of humanity (U101 Course Team, 2013). Similarly, research shows that limiting choice can have a positive effect on the creative process (Costello and Keane, 2000; Stokes, 2001; Sellier & Dahl, 2011).



  • A lot of ideas in one head
  • A research idea, project or thesis
  • Pen and paper


With research, project or thesis ideas, trying to condense these can really help us to focus on what matters. Even just externalising ideas helps sort your head out. Get out pen and paper and try these:

  1. Write the idea(s) as a newspaper headline piece – start with the text of the idea, make the strapline (one short sentence) and then the headline. Have a look at how newspapers do this and go for pithy and meaning-filled headlines.
  2. Make a presentation slide – just one slide – to explain your research (this is not a research poster – the less you put in, the better).
  3. Imagine the world is about to face disaster and you have been asked to provide a sentence that will be preserved for future generations when they emerge again – what sentence would sum up your knowledge/problem/idea?
  4. Write a problem or design statement to focus your ideas. Try to include the reliable 5W1H: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How. Then create sentences such as ‘How might we…’, ‘Design a …’, or ‘If … then …’. Using specific templates like these can help you work out what doesn’t work.
  5. Write down the problem you are working on. Now ask yourself ‘is this the problem or is it a symptom of another problem?’ Now write down the problem that lies behind the first one and repeat until it gets silly. Somewhere in between these extremes lies the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of your problem.
  6. If you are working with a lot of different ideas, try to set these out spatially and see what patterns emerge. For each idea, note it down on a sticky note or paper – summarise it (step 1) and use one or two words as a title for the idea. Put ideas that seem to relate to one another into groups and re-summarise these (this is a sort of cheap synthesis).
  7. For the hardcore minimalist, create a cartoon communicating your idea (with not more than three frames) or write a haiku as an abstract. Go one step further and check that someone else can ‘read’ it.
  8. Kill your darlings, your initially favoured ideas, (slowly) by having an area in your notebook or on your whiteboard where you dump ideas that don’t fit. Leave them there for a few weeks. If nothing comes from them, get rid of them (but put them into storage – you never know…).

Cook’s tips

Remember, this is not just about creating difficulties; it is about embracing them to engender innovative thinking.

It’s also an iterative process – if you’re getting stuck with one method, move on and try another. The ones that don’t work will tell you more about what does.


It can be difficult to strike the right balance between limitations and divergent thinking. Ensure that someone is charged with keeping an eye on the bigger picture to make sure that a good balance is achieved.

BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from:

Sense Publishers: Paperback | Hardcover | Free Open Access
Amazon: Paperback | Hardcover
Barnes & Noble: Paperback | Hardcover

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