Limit me! Why creatives need limits even in the age of disruption.

I marvel at what my 11 year-old son can do with a sharpie and the letters B.O.E.

You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names.

A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with black sharpie. And almost all on post-it notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?”, the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters”, “paper”, “markers”, “paint”, “fruits”, “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No”, he’d invariably say, without further explanation.

As a creative director, I understood.

When I was in college, I fancied myself an artist. For my senior thesis, I could request the part of the university gallery space I wanted for my exhibit. It was a lottery, but I got my first choice. I learned later, because no one else wanted it. In a way, it was the hardest – a square, spare cement space separate from the regular long, well-lit gallery walls. I literally chose to box myself in.

Oblivious to the extraordinary amount of pre-baccalaureate pretension, I made a shrine to my destiny spirit. It made sense at the time – I had just returned from studying abroad in Nigeria where I learned about how young people on the cusp of adulthood placate their destiny spirit to ensure a successful future. For my materials, I also wanted to limit myself. Charcoal drawings. Grass and hay in plexiglass boxes. Two figurative sculptures from paper pulp and cheesecloth on the boxes. And, a tree hanging from the ceiling. The irony was that I felt the only way to tackle the tremendous scale of the idea was to limit the materials and manner in which I could express it.

“You’re a designer, not at artist,” my professor said at my final review, seemingly knocking me off my plexiglass pedestal.

Today, as a creative director, I know he was right.

I get off on the limitations. And, almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in 2 weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

I definitely can’t speak for fine artists. But, after 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying those limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas.

“I didn’t want to limit you”, says an account director to me at their own peril.

Yes, not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams.

But, most critically, I definitely want to know the edges of the box — all the things we can’t do, and the very few things we can do — so that I can fill that box with awesomeness. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black and white talking banana.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need.

And we will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.


This article originally appeared in MediaPost on September 5, 2017.