Creativity, Limitations, and Constraints

we take a look at the first steps in the preparation stage. But first,  let’s take a step back and look at something we usually do not think about when  preparing a presentation: creativity. You may not think of yourself as being  creative, let alone as a creative professional like a designer, writer, artist, and  so on. But developing presentation content—especially content to be delivered  with the aid of multimedia—is a creative act.  Most of the students and 

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professionals I meet in classes and seminars  around the world say that they are “not very creative.” Some of this is modesty  no doubt, but I think most adults genuinely believe this. They have convinced  themselves that creative is just not a term they would use to describe  themselves. And yet these are adults who do well in their jobs and generally  have happy and productive lives. How is it that they believe they are not  creative or that their jobs do not require high levels of creativity? On the other  hand, if you ask a room full of young children if they are creative, you’ll see just  about every hand go up. Pablo Picasso said that “all children are born artists,  the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” The same can be said for  creativity. You were born creative and you still are that creative being today, no  matter what your career path. There are many ways to express your creativity,  and designing and delivering an effective presentation is one way to do so.  Creating presentations is a supremely creative process—or it should be.  It’s as much “right brain” as it is “left brain,” and design does matter. Who  said that business and creativity were mutually exclusive? Is business only  about managing numbers and administration? Can’t students become better  business leaders tomorrow by learning how to become better design thinkers  today? Aren’t design thinking, design mindfulness, and creative thinking valuable aptitudes for all professionals, regardless of their  discipline or particular task at hand?  Once you realize that preparing a presentation is an act  requiring creativity—not merely the assembling of facts  and data in a linear fashion—you’ll see that preparing a  presentation is a “whole-minded” activity that requires as  much right-brain thinking as it does left-brain thinking.  In fact, while your research and background work may  have required much logical analysis, calculation, and  careful evidence gathering using left-brain thinking, the  transformation of your content into presentation form will  require that you exercise much more of your right brain.


Start with the Beginner’s Mind Zen teachings often speak of the “beginner’s mind” or “child’s mind.” Like a  child, one who approaches life with a beginner’s mind is fresh, enthusiastic,  and open to the vast possibilities of ideas and solutions before them. A child  does not know what is not possible and so is open to exploration, discovery,  and experimentation. If you approach creative tasks with the beginner’s mind,  you can see things more clearly, unburdened by your fixed views, habits,  and what conventional wisdom says it is (or should be). One who possesses  a beginner’s mind is not burdened by old habits or obsessed about “the way  things are done around here” or with the way things could have or should have  been done. A beginner is open, receptive, and more inclined to say “Why not?”  or “Let’s give it a shot,” rather than “It’s never been done” or “That’s not  common.” When you approach a new challenge as a true beginner (even as a seasoned  adult), you need not be saddled with fear of failure or making mistakes. If  you approach problems with the “expert’s mind,” you are often blind to the  possibilities. Your expert’s mind is bound by the past; it is not interested in  the new, different, and untried. Your expert’s mind will say, “It can’t be done”  or “It shouldn’t be done.” Your beginner’s mind will say, “I wonder if this can  be done?” If you approach a task with the beginner’s mind, you are not afraid of being  wrong. The fear of making a mistake, risking an error, or being told you are  wrong is constantly with us. And that’s a shame. Making mistakes is not the  same thing as being creative, but if you are not willing to make mistakes,  then it is impossible to be truly creative. If your state of mind is coming from  a place of fear and risk avoidance, then you will always settle for the safe  solutions—the solutions already applied many times before. And sometimes,  the “path already taken” is the best solution. But you should not follow the  path automatically without first seeing it for what it really is. When you are  open to possibilities, you may find that the most common way is the best way  for your particular case. However, this will not be a choice made by habit. You  will choose based on reflection and in the spirit of a beginner with fresh eyes  and a new perspective.

Children are naturally creative, playful, and experimental. If you ask me,  we were the most human when we were young kids. We “worked” on our  art, sometimes for hours without a break, because it was in us, although we  didn’t intellectualize it. As we got older, fears crept in along with doubts, selfcensoring, and overthinking. The creative spirit is in us now; it’s who we are.  We just need to look at the kids around us to be reminded of that. Whether you  are 28 or 88, it’s never too late, because the child is still in you.

You Are Creative

Creative power and creative imagination are not only for the artists of the  world—painters, sculptors, and so on. Teachers also need the power of  creativity. So do programmers, engineers, scientists, etc. You can see the  application of creative genius in many professional fields. Remember, it was  a group of brilliant and geeky-to-the-core, left-brain NASA engineers on the  ground who were able to jury-rig a solution to the life-threatening buildup  of carbon dioxide in the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft back in 1970. Their  heroic fix—literally involving duct tape and spare parts—was ingenious  improvisation; it was imaginative and creative.  Being creative does not mean wearing a black turtleneck and hanging  out in jazz cafés sipping cappuccinos. It means using your whole mind to  find solutions. Creativity means not being paralyzed by your methods and  knowledge, but being able to think outside the box (sometimes very quickly)  to find solutions to unforeseen problems. This kind of situation requires logic  and analysis, but also big-picture thinking. And big-picture thinking is a rightbrain, creative aptitude.

Back down here on earth, the seemingly mundane business of a conference  presentation, designed and delivered with the help of slideware, can be a  very creative thing. A presentation is an opportunity to differentiate yourself,  your organization, or your cause. It’s your chance to tell the story of why  your content is important and why it matters. It can be an opportunity to  make a difference. So why look or talk like everyone else? Why strive to meet  expectations? Why not surpass expectations and surprise people?

You are a creative person—probably far more creative than you think. All  people should work toward tapping into their creative abilities and unleashing  their imaginations. If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press) is  one of the most inspiring and useful books I have ever read. The book was first  published in 1938 and probably should have been titled “If You Want to Be  Creative.” Her simple yet sage advice will be of interest not only to writers but  to anyone who yearns to be more creative in their work or to help others get in  touch with their creative souls (this goes for programmers and epidemiologists,  as well as designers and artists). This book should be required reading for all  professionals and especially those aspiring to teach anyone about anything.  Following are ideas inspired by Brenda Ueland that you should keep in mind  when preparing for a presentation or any other creative endeavor in your work.


The Big Lie

Ah, the big lie we tell ourselves: “I am not creative.” Sure, you might not be  the next Picasso in your field. (Then again, who knows?) But it doesn’t matter.  What matters is to not close yourself down too early in the exploration process.  Failing is fine; it’s necessary, in fact. But avoiding experimentation or risk— especially out of fear of what others may think—is something that will gnaw  at your gut more than any ephemeral failure. A failure is in the past. It’s done  and over. But worrying about “what might be if…” or “what might have been  if I had…” are pieces of baggage you carry around daily. They’re heavy, and  they’ll kill your creative spirit. Take chances and stretch yourself. You’re only  here on this planet once, and for a very short time at that. Why not just see  how gifted you are? You may surprise someone. Most importantly, you may  surprise yourself.

Be a Pirate!

Inspiration. Where can you find it? You can find inspiration in a million places,  in a million ways—but probably not in your same old routine. Sometimes,  you can find inspiration in teaching. When you teach someone something  important to you, you are reminded of why it matters, and the enthusiasm  of the student—child or adult—is infectious and energizing. Ueland says, “I  helped them by trying to make them feel freer, bolder. Let her go! Be careless,  reckless! Be a lion. Be a pirate!” You know it’s important to be free, free like  children are. You just need to be reminded of that occasionally.

Do Not Force It Idling—doing nothing—is important. Most of us, myself included, are  obsessed with getting things done. We’re afraid to be unproductive. And  yet, the big ideas often come during your periods of “laziness,” during those  episodes of “wasting time.” People need more time away from the direct  challenges of work. Taking long walks on the beach, jogging through the forest,  going for bike rides, reading the Sunday paper for four to five hours in a coffee  shop. During these times, your creative spirit is energized. Sometimes you  need solitude and a break to slow down so that you may see things differently.  Managers who understand this and give their staff the time they need (which  they can only do by genuinely trusting them) are the secure managers—and  the best managers.

Enthusiasm  Put your love, passion, imagination, and spirit behind it. Without enthusiasm,  there is no creativity. It may be a quiet enthusiasm, or it may be loud. It doesn’t    matter, as long as it is real. I remember a guy’s comment on a successful  long-term project of mine: “Well, you have enthusiasm, I’ll give you that.” He  didn’t realize that it was a backhanded compliment. These are the people who  get us down. Life is short. Don’t hang out with people who dismiss the idea of  enthusiasm, or worse still, with those who try to kill yours. Trying to impress  others or worrying about what others may think of your enthusiasm or passion  should be the last thing on your mind.

When forced to work within a strict  framework the imagination is taxed to  its utmost—and will produce its richest  ideas. Given total freedom the work is  likely to sprawl.        —T.S. Eliot



The Art of Working with  Restrictions My friends at Universal Studios Japan—Jasper von Meerheimb, senior art  director, and Sachiko Kawamura, senior environmental graphic designer— gave an excellent presentation for Design Matters Japan on the issue of how  restrictive conditions put on creative projects can lead to inventive solutions.  In their presentation, they talked about how to develop concepts and  implement them under constraints such as limited time, space, and budgets.  For professional designers, creating great work under a thousand constraints  and limitations imposed from the outside is simply the way the world of design  works. Whether constraints are good or bad, enabling or crippling, is in a sense  irrelevant; constraints are the way of the world. Still, as John Maeda points  out in The Laws of Simplicity (MIT Press), “In the field of design there is the  belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed.” Time, for  example, and the sense of urgency that it brings, is almost always a constraint,  yet “urgency and the creative spirit go hand in hand,” says Maeda.

Using creativity and skill to solve a problem or design a message among  a plethora of restrictions from the client, the boss, and so on, is old hat to  designers. They live it. Daily. However, for the millions of nondesigners with  access to powerful design tools, the importance of constraints and limitations  is not well understood. For those not trained in design, the task of creating  presentation visuals (or posters, websites, newsletters, etc.) with today’s  software tools can make users frustrated by the abundance of options or giddy  in anticipation of applying their artistic sensibilities to decorate their work with  an ever-increasing array of colors, shapes, and special effects. Either condition  can lead to designs and messages that suffer. What you can learn from  professional designers is that (1) constraints and limitations are a powerful  ally, not an enemy, and (2) creating your own self-imposed constraints,  limitations, and parameters is often fundamental to good, creative work.  Self-imposed constraints can help you formulate clearer messages,  including visual messages. In the various Zen arts, for example, you’ll find  that careful study, practice, and adherence to strict guidelines (constraints)

Pecha Kucha: A Sign of the  Changing Times Pecha Kucha is a global presentation phenomenon  started in 2003 by Tokyo-based expatriate  architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein. (Pecha  kucha is Japanese for "chatter.") Pecha Kucha  is an example of the changing attitudes toward  presentation and a wonderfully creative and unconventional way to “do PowerPoint.” The Pecha  Kucha method of presentation design and delivery  is very simple.  You must use 20 slides, each shown  for 20 seconds, as you tell your story in sync with  the visuals. That’s 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Slides  advance automatically, and when you’re done  you’re done. That’s it. Sit down. The objective of  these simple but tight restraints is to keep the  presentations brief and focused and to give more  people a chance to present in a single night.  PechaKucha Nights are held in more than 80  cities from Amsterdam and Auckland to Venice and  Vienna. The PechaKucha Nights in Tokyo are hosted  in a hip multimedia space, and the atmosphere on  the night I attended was a cross between a cool  user group meeting and a popular night club.

If nothing else, the Pecha Kucha method is  good training and good practice. Everyone should  try Pecha Kucha—it’s a good exercise for getting  your story down even if you do not use this exact  method for your own live talk. It doesn’t matter  whether you can replicate the Pecha Kucha 20 x 20    6:40 method in your own company or school; the  spirit behind it and the concept of  “restrictions  as liberators” can be applied to almost any  presentation situation.

This method makes going deep difficult. But if a  good discussion arises from a Pecha Kucha type of  presentation, then it may work well even inside an  organization. I can envision having college students  give this kind of presentation about their research  followed by deeper questioning and probing by  the instructor and class. Which would be more  difficult for a student and a better indication  of their knowledge: a 45-minute recycled and  typical PowerPoint presentation, or a tight 6:40  presentation followed by 30 minutes of probing  questions and discussion? On the other hand, if  you can’t tell the essence of your story in less than  seven minutes, then you probably shouldn’t be  presenting anyway.  Check out the PechaKucha website to find a  PechaKucha Night near you.

serve to bring out the creative energy of the individual. For example, haiku has  a long tradition and strict guidelines, yet with much practice one can create  a message (in 17 syllables or less) that captures both the details and the  essence of a moment. The form of haiku may have strict rules, but the rules  are what can help you express your own “haiku moments” with both subtlety  and depth. In Wabi Sabi Simple (Adams Media Corporation, 2004), author  Richard Powell comments on wabi sabi, discipline, and simplicity as they  relate to such arts as bonsai and haiku:

“Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. [C]arefully  eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements  that obstruct and obscure…. Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse  perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear  and direct attention.” Life is about living with limitations of one type or another, but constraints  are not necessarily bad. In fact, constraints are helpful, even inspiring as  they challenge us to think differently and more creatively about a particular  problem. While problems such as a sudden request to give a 20-minute sales  pitch or a 45-minute overview of research findings have built-in limitations— such as time, tools, and budget—we can increase our effectiveness by  stepping back and thinking long and hard. We can also determine ways to  set our own parameters and constraints as we prepare and design our next  presentation with greater clarity, focus, balance, and purpose.

As daily life becomes even more complex, and the options and choices  continue to mount, crafting messages and making designs that are clear,  simple, and concise becomes all the more important. Clarity and simplicity  are often all people want or need—yet it’s increasingly rare and all the more  appreciated when it’s discovered. You want to surprise people? You want to  exceed their expectations? Then consider making it beautiful, simple, clear…

and great. The “greatness” may just be found in what you left out, not in what  you left in. It takes creativity and the courage to be different. Your audience is  praying that you’ll be both creative and courageous.

In Sum  • Preparing, designing, and delivering a presentation is a creative act, and you are a creative being.

Creativity requires an open mind and a willingness to be wrong.

Restrictions and limitations are not the enemy; they are a great ally.

As you prepare a presentation, exercise restraint and always keep these three words in mind: simplicity, clarity, brevity.

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