Get back inside the box. That’s where you’re most creative.

A figure stands inside of a cardboard box pondering a lightbulb.
The phrase "think outside the box” has a very literal origin. But constraints can be helpful, says creativity expert Markus Baer. (Getty Images)

The phrase “think outside the box” has become one of the most overused, uncreative ways to stimulate creative thinking. What’s more, it’s not even good advice, says noted creativity expert Markus Baer, Ph.D., associate professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. 

A person giving a lecture to a group of students in a classroom.
Creativity expert Markus Baer says thinking inside the box is the best way to get your creative juices flowing. (Image courtesy VCU School of Business)

Baer, visiting professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, delivered this semester’s Creativity at Work talk, “Constraints from Creativity.” And while “think outside the box” might bring up different visuals for different people, the phrase itself has a very literal origin, Baer said. 

Stemming from the classic nine dot problem, a lateral thinking exercise, the adage is an actual clue to solving the puzzle that presents a set of dots in a three-by-three grid. Players must connect all the dots using the fewest possible number of straight lines — without lifting their pen from the paper. The way to do this? Go outside the literal box created by the grid.

“There's nothing wrong with thinking outside the box, but there's something, I think, wrong with the assumption that providing no boundaries equates to [generating] creative ideas,” Baer said. “There's some evidence to suggest that people have trouble dealing with too many choices." 

“How are they going to be able to choose or select ideas from an infinite space or number of ideas if there are no boundaries given?”

Constraints can be helpful, especially when viewed as offering some form of guidance in producing ideas, Baer said. There are two kinds of constraints, he explained: suggestive, which suggest the problem solver explore one specific path over all others, and prohibitive, which prohibit only one specific path, but allow all others. 

“The point I'm trying to make is that constraints can be your friend,” Baer said. “Overall, the point is that people struggle thinking outside the box if there are no more constraints involved. … It seems much more productive to impose constraints of either the suggestive or prohibitive kind.” 

Here are some of Baer’s examples of constraints that yielded pretty creative responses: 

How a kingfisher helped reshape Japan's bullet train - BBC News

It’s a bird, it’s a train …

Thousands of engineers have worked on Japan’s bullet train, the Shinkansen. But it took one with a fondness for bird-watching to suggest they look to the sky to solve the problem of the sonic boom created when the high-speed train exited tunnels. Designs based on the kingfisher — a bird that dives into water with very little resistance — resulted in quieter trains that were faster and more energy efficient to boot.

Bruce Lee - high speed painting

Karate chopped painting

American artist Phil Hansen was an expert in pointillism until permanent nerve damage prevented him from executing the precision work required. To compensate, he suggested the constraint of using the principle of pointillism on a larger scale, where he wouldn’t need to hold a paintbrush.

Hansen ended up using his feet, shoes and hands to create large-scale works, such as this painting of Bruce Lee created entirely by karate chopping paint onto the canvas.

Read-Aloud "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr Seuss - A Book for Kids

“Green Eggs and Ham”

The beloved Dr. Seuss book came about from a prohibitive constraint imposed by the author’s publisher as a challenge: Write an entire book using no more than 50 words. 

Geico Ad With A Hungry Dog

You can’t skip this ad

What if you only had five seconds to communicate your message? That’s the question brands faced in response to the skip function that YouTube introduced years ago, instituting a very prohibitive constraint on companies. GEICO responded with the ad that you couldn’t skip because it’s already over.

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