Limit me, I dare you

11 July 2016
11 July 2016 Tenaka

Limits are a ball ache – they’re all around us (alongside messages urging us to break out of our limits): limited budget, hours, colours, sizes, shapes, team members, resources, media, file size; speed limits; remaining airtime: R3.72; you want to chat? Sure. I’ve got 7 minutes till my next meeting.

The list of limits goes on…

Client briefs are full of limits: How can they expect me to get this done in 3 hours? What miracle do they think I’m going to make out of three toilet roll inners and a paperclip? Making my point in less than 11 words is impossible!

But wait. What if there were no limits?

When I imagine no limits, I imagine: me, rocking in a chair – bewildered, paralysed by possibilities. (It’s not a rocking chair.) Take that to the brief and you’ll find a fretful creative: a blank palette is an unnerving beast.

The truth is, boundaries help us. They give us comfort and stability and something to work from. Limits give us freedom to thrash about, explore, throw around ideas.

One of my favourite illustrations of this is Phil Hansen. Phil was an art student obsessed with pointilism (dot art). His hand started shaking, turning his dots into tadpoles and confounding his art. So he held the pen tighter. The tighter he held, the more he damaged the nerves, until eventually, he gave up and walked away – from art school, and from art.

Three years later, his doctor suggested that Phil “embrace the shake”: he would never again be able to form an image of tiny dots, but there were other ways of making art. Phil was ready to start again. He sat down with a bunch of new supplies and a heap of optimism: finally, he had all the tools he needed! But he drew a blank: all that choice left him empty of ideas, and he fell into a creative slump.

“It was then that I thought back to this limitation of my jittery hand. I realised, if I ever wanted my creativity back, I had to quit trying so hard to look outside of the box – and get back into it.”

So, Phil started exploring creativity through the lens cap of limitation, and chose, as his first project, to make a piece of art with less than a dollar. This was the beginning of a new era where limits gave birth to possibility.

In his Goodbye Art project, Phil experimented with destroying art he’d made, or using temporary materials (like spat out food and frozen wine). “What I thought would be the ultimate limitation actually turned out to be the ultimate liberation as each time I created, the destruction brought me back to a neutral place where I felt refreshed and ready to start the next project.” He learned how to let go and discovered that this translated beyond art into life.

Check out Phil’s TED talk to see some of the work he created under limitations – it’ll take 10 minutes, and it might give you a goosebump or two.

Berlin Architect and Designer, Sigurd Larsen, has come to a similar conclusion: “Limitations given by a client [are] definitely going to give a lot of inspiration and make a lot of decisions for you in the design process, whereas in a completely free artform you have to search for the limitations yourself.”

It’s frustrating when your complaints about lack of time are batted back in your face with names like Richard Branson: “He has 24 hours in a day, just like us, and look what he achieves!” We can’t argue with that (damn it). But we can learn from it. We can see a deadline as an advantage – an opportunity, rather than a constraint.

If you have a few minutes to spare… play around with limitations.

  • Here’s a delicious dilemma we often find ourselves in: make a tasty meal with three items from your cupboard/fridge.
  • A tweet of 140 characters is fantastic practice at cutting out the crap and getting your message across (and still having room for a link). (139)
  • Or try a haiku. It really turns your mind on, and it’s kind of cute


If you’re in the mood for a tougher challenge, take Ernest Hemmingway’s example: sum up your life meaningfully in six words. Here’s Hemmingway’s heartbreaker: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” *gulp*

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May said, “Creativity itself requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”

So, the next time you find yourself staring at a blank canvas that reflects your terror and emptiness, limit yourself – this one’s out of egg shells. And the next time someone gives you a tight or unaccommodating brief, turn it into a brilliant opportunity – not to bitch, but to get back into that box and play.

Embrace your limits, for they are what give you form. Or, in the words of Phil Hansen: “Seize the limitation.”