Jul 10 2011

Creativity flourishes within constraints, from TV to iPhone apps

How does The Daily Show come up with great new material day after day? Jon Stewart says:

you'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized… I'm a real believer in that creativity comes from limits not freedom. Freedom, I think you don't know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.

What’s interesting about this philosophy is how general it is, from daily TV shows to iPhone apps to web sites to movies. An Orthodox priest extrapolated from Jon’s quote to “Discipline is the means to true human freedom.” Consistency of process or structure seems especially helpful whenever many similar items need to be produced.

The Daily Show: Indecision 2004I'd suggest one reason iPhone apps have become such a cultural phenomenon is that they largely follow a similar structure. In fact, Apple carefully documents this structure in its iOS Human Interface Guidelines. I believe design within constraints works well for two reasons in an interactive medium.

First, developers can design their apps more quickly because there are standard layouts and conventions. Otherwise, they’d have to start from scratch with each new app. The more talents and work required, the fewer people can make good apps. Similarly, in the realm of web sites there are almost 50 million built on WordPress, arguably because WordPress provides the structure and thus makes it easy for non-techies to blog.

Second, the users can quickly understand how to use a new app if it follows the pattern of other apps they’ve used. For example, when they want to switch to another function of the app, they know to look at the tabs along the bottom. Here’s a counterexample: when a web site tries to get fancy by using custom scroll bars, they often get in the user’s way because they don’t respond as he expects.

In another example from the entertainment world, screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (also of Reno 911! fame) says about writing for movies:

What people need to embrace and accept, if you're going to be a writer in Hollywood, is that every single movie has the exact same structure, exactly, whether it's "Die Hard" or "Night at the Museum."… But the problem that a lot of young screenwriters have…is that they are struggling because they think formula is a bad word... Formula is really not.

In other words, if the formula has worked for hundreds of successful movies, or hundreds of thousands of successful apps, stick with it!