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Constraint-based Creativity

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The whispering whizz of mowing scythes startled sleepy birds nesting near the ancient Nile Delta. Workers harvest the papyrus plant quickly and efficiently, before the unbearable heat of the Egyptian sun turns the slave labor into an even bigger nightmare. The fibers of these plants were to be converted into valuable paper by expert papyrus makers.

In the second century before Christ, king Ptolemy the Fifth promptly ordered craftsman to stop exporting one of their national products. The reason was as simple and mundane as jealousy. A rivaling library in Pergamon, then in Mysia an now in western Turkey, had gained enough traction to greatly annoy the king, who wanted to protect the fame and power of his Great Library of Alexandria at all costs.

The sudden papyrus shortages did not stop Hellenic king Eumenes the Second from expanding the library in Pergamon. His hunger for literature was much, much bigger. The papyrus plant does not grow well in Mysia, and resorting to clay tablets greatly decreases the capacity of a single book. Instead of accepting defeat, Eumenes' experts perfected the eastern art of writing on animal skin, a method that until then was only used locally and not highly regarded.

Ptolemy’s masterstroke turned out to be a painful mistake. It was called parchmentpergameno in Latin—as a memory to the city where this technique was perfected, and it was parchment that made sure Ptolemy’s already crumbling Alexandria lost even more political power.

Twenty-one centuries later, the rhythmic scratches of swift and wet brush strokes rubbing against a canvas entranced a lone painter in a big mansion near Aix-en-Provence in the southern of France. Paul Cézanne’s daily exercise of drawing a basket of apples, again and again, gradually shifted his ideas of painting a subject from a single viewpoint to a combination of multiple angles.

Cézanne attempted the impossible: to paint different compositions using only one canvas. Yet, the end result achieved in 1893 was a surprisingly balanced but disjointed perspective, precisely because of the unbalanced parts which were all drawn using a slightly different vantage point.

Cézanne’s Le panier de pommes challenged the idea of linear perspective. Painters had been employing a single vantage point for centuries to create the illusion of space and dept. Everyone just assumed it was impossible without resorting to another canvas. This achievement earned Cézanne the title of “The Father of Modern Art”, as his paintings paved the way for Fauvism and especially Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s Cubism art movement.

Cézanne's skewed apple painting. Note the perspective of the table and the basket especially.

In the end of the next century, the busy sound of mechanical keystrokes filled The Black Cube, an office space in Mesquite, Texas. A small team of designers, programmers, and artists are working on their next video game that would take the world by storm: John Romero, Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen, John Carmack, Dave Taylor, Adrian Carmack, and Kevin Cloud—id Software—were developing DOOM in 1992.

The keystrokes did not come from classic beige looking keyboards attached to 80386 IBM PCs. They came from sleek black keyboards connected to NeXTstation computers running the NeXTSTEP operating system, the UNIX-based precursor to MacOS. Carmack and his team found that cross-compiling on NeXT hardware dramatically increased their productivity. The workstations shipped with 17" monitors that could handle more colors and larger resolutions1, helping DOOM’s map designers to get the job done.

Carmack admitted to spending over $100,000 on NeXT computers during the entire course of DOOM and Quake’s development. For many developers and designers, even the “cheaper” NeXTstations were well beyond their budgets. Still, their high price tag turned out to work well of id Software. By rejecting conventional IBM PCs as workstations, their bloody space marine shooter was churned out in just over a year, making millions within the first year of release.

What is the greatest common divisor between Eumenes' reaction to being cut off from Ptolemy’s papyrus supplies, Paul Cézanne’s stubbornness to clinging onto a single canvas to paint multiple viewpoints, and id Software’s decision to move a majority of the development process onto NeXT computers? All three examples showcase a challenge to overcome, and all three result in radical forward-thinking inventions.

These challenges can be seen as constraints. Pergamon suddenly lost access to papyrus. How to supply paper to scholars to keep on feeding the library and expand cultural and political influence? Cézanne refused to paint two vantage points on two canvases. How to paint multiple angles using only one canvas? Carmack and his team refused to work with lower-resolution and slower hardware. How to (partially) get rid of hardware constraints?

Constraints prove to be of paramount importance when it comes to creativity. These can be self-imposed, such as Cézanne who only uses one canvas. Later artists do this often: adhere to a muted color palette, only draw rectangles, and so forth. Or constraints can be “forced upon you”: in that case, you’ll have to either work with what is given to you, or find a way around it.

The end result of a process influenced by constraints is always very progressive. No constraints, no creativity. Just like collective creativity, it is one of the many important factors to take into account when trying to solve problems creatively.

Remember that next time you’re forced to work with legacy Visual Basic code.

This is part two of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity and part 3: creative critical thinking.

  1. 1120x832 pixels with a density of 92 DPI, compared to standard 14" monitors delivering a resolution of 640x480, which already was considered high-end on PCs. Read more about this awesome technology and how id Software used it in Fabian Sanglaard’s Game Engine Black Book: DOOM. ↩︎

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!

Constraint-based Creativity by Wouter GroeneveldWouter Groeneveld ( The whispering whizz of mowing scythes startled sleepy birds nesting near the ancient Nile Delta. Workers harvest the papyrus plant quickly and efficiently, before th...

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