Sometimes Less Technology Means More Creativity

I’m a fan of digital writing. After all, I’m sitting at my computer typing right now. And yet, when it comes to my deepest writing, I nearly always scribble it out by hand. When I’m stuck, I doodle. When I plan, I sketch out webs.

At first, I thought it was just something quirky about me — like I somehow don’t fit entirely in a digital world. However, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between technology and creativity after I recently ran across an article on why paper might work better than digital writing. This part stood out to me:

Evan DeFransciso, a 20-year-old student, says he makes a clear demarcation: digital for schoolwork and paper for “my creative writing … short stories, poems, personal thoughts. The stuff that really matters goes onto the paper,” he says.

I’ve noticed the same thing to be true in my own life. When I used to do collaborative projects with Javier (my fellow tech coach) we would start out on a Google Doc only to abandon the screen in order to scribble out our thoughts in webs and diagrams and arrows and pictures on a whiteboard.

The same is true of plot diagrams and character sketches in a novel. I have to start out on paper. In fact, yesterday’s design thinking diagram is an example of how I’d rather doodle my way through something than creating a slick-looking infographic.

So it has me wondering, “When is analog better? When is it better to go low-tech? Why is it that some of my best creative work starts out away from a screen?”

Constraint and Creativity

I recently did a TEDx Talk on the creative power of limitations. I believe that constraint (especially voluntary) can lead to creative breakthroughs. There are times, especially when you have the freedom to make mistakes, when limitations spark creative innovation. For example, the time constraint on Vine videos have led to some truly creative work. The location constraints in Baltimore and San Francisco led to two of the most iconic stadiums (Camden Yards and AT&T Ballpark) in the last thirty years. It’s the idea that a land-locked Portland is more creative than the wide open spaces of Phoenix. I mentioned the MacGeyver-style projects that students do and talked about the need for structure, deadlines and routines.

This isn’t always the case. Sometimes limitations can be soul-crushing and lead to risk-aversion. Too many restrictions and deadlines and rules can cause people to give up. This is especially true when the restrictions create high-stakes, high-stress environments. In other words, constraint works really well when mistakes are allowed. However, sometimes constraint become the source for creative workarounds.

So this has me thinking about technology. I’m wondering if maybe there are times when low-tech is precisely what people need for a creative breakthrough. The limitations lead to simplicity and that simplicity pushes people to synthesize information differently.

Why More Features Can Mean Less Freedom

On a similar note, the lack of features can actually lead to more freedom. This is the idea that adding a ton of options creates more complexity, which can, at times, lead to less freedom. It’s the idea (from The Paradox of Choice) sometimes “more is less.” In other words, maybe – just maybe – we don’t need 75 different options of Old Spice Deodorant if we want our pits to smell fresh.

That’s the beauty of a white board and a marker. Your options are limited. You’re stuck with your own handwriting. Similarly, my only color options are gray and dark gray (though some would argue that one could create fifty shades) when I sit down with a spiral notebook. However, in these moments, both the simplicity of the technology and the proximity to the human touch actually allow us to create things without having to mess with the complexity of technological systems.

This is not an anti-technology rant. After all, I’m typing this out on a blog while listening to music on Spotify. I helped found a digital writing platform last year. I like technology. I really do. However, I recognize that sometimes when you’re doing creative work, stepping away from the screen can be a good thing. Sometimes less technology can lead to more creativity.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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