Make Your Box and Then Think Outside of it


It's a dream to feel that sense of freedom when you'd be tasked with a new creative assignment without any constraints. While it's almost impossible to come across such a situation in your work life, there's always this thought at the back of your mind, that, "Only if there were no constraints to what I could think of, I'd have made the best ever stuff on the face of this planet." I say this from personal experience.

In my over a decade long experience (yes, #humblebrag) of making games across various platforms - which I believe is a field which can be on the highest level of creative freedom - I have come to realize that the worst way to think about anything new, is to think without restrictions.

There's this smart-sounding business jargon of 'blue-sky thinking' thrown around generously in lot of creative situations. It refers to brainstorming with no limits. With this approach to idea generation, ideas don’t need to be grounded in reality. (source)

While I agree with the necessity of no-limits brainstorming for boosting your creative thinking, it's never as blue a sky as the buzzword makes it sound. You'd always be thinking related to something, so definitely that's a constraint. Like for example, it'd not be worth spending your time thinking about a new scarf design, when you've to actually make a new design for a car.

Creative thinking is problem solving

Every time you are tasked with a creative thinking challenge, be it in a professional environment, or for a personal project, there always has to be a problem to solve. The task may no be for solving any particular problem, but the problem here is the thinking process that you have to solve and come out with a result.

Now when you look at this thinking process itself as a problem to be solved, constraints are the tools you can use to fix the problem. Without anything to put restraints on the directions of your thoughts, the activity could quickly turn into guiding a rudderless ship.

'Thinking outside the box' is another liberally used buzzword which I'm sure many have heard while working on anything remotely creative. It sounds motivating, just like other buzzwords which are meant to do that, but the prerequisite to effectively accomplish it would be to know what the actual box is.

After knowing your box, the thinking outside part also needs to be constrained to a specific area outside the box. Go further than that in the name of thinking outside and then it's efficient in wasting your time, than resolving the issue.

Think outside the box, but limit the range of how much outside you'd like.

I believe that the thinking part of it gets easier once you know the box. Usually, the box is presented to you in terms of all the constraints. If not, you need to find and make that box. Only once this proverbial box is created, would it help you to think in and around it.

Approaching this process in a step-by-step manner helps to structure everything better and come up with an effective solution to the problem.

1. Know thy problem

The most important step, since only once you understand what the problem entails, is when you'd have a good starting point.

Best way to do this is by looking at others who've solved similar issues and drawing references from them. It's very likely that your challenge is not as unique, and even if it is, it should be possible to learn and find valuable resources that would be of help in understanding your task.

A thorough understanding of the task at hand will always be of help in order to actually start working on it.

2. Why?

Considering you've understood the challenge, the next question to be answered is the WHY?

The answer to this 'Why?' gives you a base on which you can build your thoughts on. Any ideas that you can think of also have to be questioned with this 'Why?'

Thinking solutions is like building a structure, and this 'Why?' is the base of it. If the reasoning is weak, then you're already starting on a shaky ground.

3. What?

With a strong base built with the understanding and the reasoning for your task, next step would be to figure the WHAT?

This is where it's possible to explore the 'blue-sky' and 'outside-the-box' stuff. The groundwork in the previous steps helps in guiding where in the blue-sky you want to fly, or how much outside the box it'd be smart to go.

With the decision on this 'What?' aspect, you can get to the next level of the solution structure. Knowing what you want to do is a prerequisite to figuring out the method to do it.

4. How?

A strong base for the thoughts has resulted in a better understanding of what has to be done by now. This helps in solving the next step of HOW?

Looking back at what is the objective, the way to achieve that objective has to be formed. Check back on the resource based constraints that you'd have to come up with reasonable, and logical steps to solve for what you want to achieve.

While the previous step encourages to think more freely, when you want to decide the 'How?' of things, you need to interrupt that freedom and bring yourself back to the plausible solutions.

5. Validate

During a creative thinking process, it is difficult to see instant results because you're usually planning to do stuff, than actually doing stuff. Even after you decide on the how you want to do whatever you want to do, the substantial results are usually far away.

Thus, it's necessary to also validate your assumptions during this process. The best way to do it is to go back to your 'Why?' after deciding on the 'How?' of things.

It's quite easy to lose track during this process and come up with a solution that may not be completely aligned with what you envisioned the problem to be. Moreover, in an environment where there's a change in lot of variables over time, by the time you have an idea of the solution, there might be changes to the reasoning from the new things that you'd have learned during the process.

Validate your solutions by going back to the reasoning for taking this path in the first place.

This validation is also a great practice as you can then question your own ideas based on the requirements that you've defined, and then try to resolve them. This is of major help when you're in a situation to defend your ideas from external scrutiny. It doesn't mean that there wouldn't be any scrutiny and that your solutions would be perfect. However, you'd understand the reasoning behind your decisions better and then in turn would be able to also figure out the cracks in your ideas effectively.


  1. Creative thinking for figuring out solutions without any constraints is very ineffective.

  2. 'Blue-sky thinking' and 'Out-of-the-box ideation' are nice buzzwords which don't help without a proper structure to the thinking process.

  3. Creative thinking is about problem solving, where the problem is the act of thinking itself.

  4. Understand this problem, find the reasoning behind your task and build your own proverbial box of constraints that you want to think in.

  5. Use this box to then resolve your problem by defining what you want to do about it.

  6. Go back to the constraints and then asses how you'd resolve the problem based on what you want to do.

  7. Validate the solutions that you come up with by verifying them with the reasoning that you had in the first place.

Thanks for reading, find me on other spaces on the interwebs here.

Ishan Manjrekar

Game Designer, exploring stuff in and around the digital products space