The Power of Obstruction

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Creative professionals always seem to wish for total creative freedom. But the truth is: We hate it. Deep down, we know, freedom is bad for creativity.

I once worked on an account that was well-known for yielding lots of creative awards. The client was very open to having great ideas. They knew the more interesting and controversial their advertising was, the more publicity they would garner. For a marketer like themselves, operating on a very small budget, earned media was crucial. Everyone in the agency wanted to work on their brief. But starting one of their projects was always daunting. Where to start? Where to go?

In another agency, I worked for a creative director who introduced me to the adage "the freedom of a tight brief." This contradiction contains a powerful truth.

True creative freedom comes from a well-defined, clear obstacle. 

In the classic Ogilvy copy test - the set of solutions designed to test an individual's ability to become a copywriter - there is a problem which illustrates this truth beautifully.

You are to create a 15" TV commercial for a Young Scientists Award. You're only allowed three props: a ping-pong ball, a paper clip and a bath-plug.

The problem defines the desired outcome: promote a Young Scientists Award. It also clearly defines an obstruction: You're only allowed these three basic props.

When you first see this kind of problem you think: Impossible. But the obstruction contains the spark that every creative mind possesses. The challenge. The truly creative mind wants to find a new path to the desired outcome. It wants to destroy the obstruction. In the need to destroy the obstruction the idea is born.

If you want to see a brilliant example of how this can play out, get hold of the  documentary film: The Five Obstructions by Lars von Trier (2003).

The film is a cinematic duel between Von Trier and one of his old film school lecturers: Jorgen Leth. In the 60's, Leth made an important short film called "The Perfect Human." Von Trier's challenge, in 2003 to Leth was: Remake that same film five times - each time with a different set of obstructions, as defined by Von Trier.

During the film, Von Trier gives him obstructions that border on the insane. In fact, they aggravate Leth so much that he threatens to give up - many times. But every time, you can see how once the anger washes away, the obstruction lights the fire of inspiration in him. During the film he invents new editing techniques, creates mind-blowing animations and powerfully moving scenes. In each instance, he makes a better film than the original (in my opinion) - except for one - where he is "punished" with "no obstructions."

As writers; designers; film-makers; musicians and other creative professionals, we should not just embrace the obstruction. We should actively seek it out. If your brief doesn't contain enough tightness then why not invent some obstructions of your own?

- Design this corporate identity only using triangles

- Set this type using only Letraset

- Write this radio commercial using only sound effects

A tight brief, containing a daunting obstruction, does not just give us a useful roadmap of where we need to go, it also provides the fuel for getting to the idea.