When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.
— T.S. Eliot

There's a common misperception about what inspires creativity, and how brilliant ideas emerge from the soup of one's mind: that open, broad, limitless space to roam is what a creative person needs to make something not only original, but inspiring. 

In my own experience as a creative, both as a writer and photographer, as well as my near decade of working with creative pros in advertising, there's nothing more stunting to the mind than a limitless arena to work in. 

Limits, not unbridled freedom, inspire great creativity. 

There's something about the way a confining challenge wrangles and pins the mind down that seems to produce novel thinking. 

For the tenacious, it's the fear of being defeated by something too simple. 

For the brave, it's the testing of grit to see what's deeper within. 

And over and over again when speaking with those who've made a profession out of making things with their mind muscle, you'll hear how important clear, defined objectives with limits are to the quality of their work. 

One such example came when I spoke with the owner and CCO of BFG, Gerry Graf. His fame as a creative in advertising came when TV was king. Now, it's more or less dead. The landscape has changed and the way we have to think about communication and marketing has needed to warp to fit small screens and four second attention spans. 

So I asked him how he was holding up while his famed medium of TV was losing to "less creative" media like banner ads, native content, and a tweet or an instagram post.

"It's the same task, different execution," he said. "What I need is the same as before: a clear problem to solve, knowledge of how the thing works, and a specific strategic and conceptual boundary for for me to work within. The get out of my way let me get to work. I'll still come up with something that'll blow your mind." 

He has a right to that kind of confidence

I left our chat with even more respect for greats like him, those who have towering egos but who aren't above tackling copy for a banner ad. 

I also realized that this is why it's always bugged me when people talk about "less sexy" creative opportunities (think CRM, display, and the other ugly children of modern digital advertising) as if there was no potential for original, bright thinking. If anything it shows a complete lack of imagination and allergy to tough creative challenges, not a refined attitude about the craft. 

When people heard that at one point I was asked to write 200 lines of headline copy for a display campaign, they asked how much I'd had to drink to endure the feat. Truth is I enjoyed having my ass handed to me by such a seemingly dull assignment. 

The reason I stayed enthused was because I was pressured by a tight client and creative brief, scant character limits, and only a few hours to finish. Despite it taking a year off my life, the value came through the fact that it forced me to scrutinize every syllable and every word (unlike this droning blog post...).

I had to clean things up, get lean, remember the basic, simple structure of S+V+O English, and to hunt down the sharpest, most interesting, brand-voiced verbs to drive an ad and catch attention. 

I didn't win an award, and the campaign, for the most part, has gone unnoticed. 

But the lesson remains that when you're hungry enough, there isn't a problem too small or boring not to find creative inspiration. 

The point I've been trying to make is this:

If you want to "inspire" creatives, don't be cute or flashy. And don't say "make whatever."

Just give them a sandbox, not a beach, and set them off to build castles.