product designer, cyclist, armchair urbanist

Working Like A Mule

My brother-in-law just returned from a trip to Israel, and told us about the oil press. It's a bit of simple genius, really – a pit, a large grinding stone, an axle, and a shaft attached to the axle which is hooked up to a mule. The ill-fated mule gets harnessed up to this apparatus, and gets encouraged to walk in a circle.

When the mule walks in a circle, he turns the shaft, which turns the grinding wheel which grinds olives to extract oil. A beast that would be utterly useless roaming free in en plein air becomes immensely useful when placed within carefully confined restraints and given simple orders.

There's a time and a place for roaming free, of course, but if I really want to get stuff done, I have to tie myself down like the mule. I had this epiphany several weeks ago while listening to Mike Monteiro talk to Jeffrey Zeldman on the Big Web Show. Mike talked about going through a creative drought – his solution was to commit to doing art within a tightly pre-defined set of constraints.

It's easier to be creative when millions of potential paths are not an option. You're left spending less time trying to decide what to do, and more time doing something really well.

So, a simple creative constraint might look like this:

Create a 3-piece set of illustrations for my office:

  • Geometrically-inspired
  • Only 2 color families per piece
  • 1 theme per piece: Faith, Hope, and Love
  • Final size: 12" x 12", printed digitally on canvas
  • Limit 5 hours per piece

You'll probably get that set of illustrations done.

Compare that to this:

"I should make more art. Maybe I'll try to create something tonight."