Lettering Between the Lines: How Constraints Increase Creativity


When you feel stuck, or simply don't know where to start, sometimes you need to mix things up. Often, you try to add various styles or use different tools in a piece of work. But sometimes, there are just too many options, and you might feel paralyzed.

Welcome to the club.

There are days when I would just stare at the blank page for a long time because I don't know what to write or I don't know what pen to use or style to follow.

Too many options.

If there are too many options, it will weigh you down. Of course, it's nice to have many options, but sometimes having less is more. While this concept applies to other things, the focus is on creativity and lettering.

Introducing constraints to your lettering

These are some ways you can achieve this:

  • Style - Maybe you want to use serifs, or decorative or brush style. Choose one and use it for your piece. By going for a single type, you can see the forms more clearly and understand each letter better.
  • Medium - Most of the time, a plain white paper will suffice. You can add more constraint by using a different colored paper or a different texture. Aside from that, you can try using a newspaper clipping or a different surface. Changing the medium you work on allows you to explore different surfaces and become more creative in how you write on them.
  • Tool - Instead of using many different tools, you can choose one lettering instrument and focus on that. If you're used to using a brush pen, you can opt to use a paint brush or maybe some chopsticks or cotton tips. Even if you decide to use only a pencil, you will realize that you can achieve a lot of different results.
  • Size - Try a smaller or a bigger piece this time. By shifting the size, you are allowing your mind to be flexible, and your hands adapt to a different stroke. If you chose to draw a smaller piece, your hands would do more work to make detailed linework, while a bigger size will force your arms to move.
  • Shape - You can also introduce different shapes and lines to frame your lettering. Instead of a free-flowing piece, you can try having a circular border. You can also try using a triangle or diagonal lines to frame your piece. Framing your lettering in a different way helps you break some conventions in how each letter is structured.
  • Time - A good exercise is to sketch for 30 minutes, then draw the same piece in 15 minutes. Finally, illustrate the same piece again in 5 minutes. You will see how varying the time can help you simplify and achieve different looks to the same piece.

As you go along, you can add more constraints. For example, in this lettering, I chose to use only a pencil and use a single style, and a box frames the words.

Stop Making Excuses Start Taking Action
Stop Making Excuses Start Taking Action

In this example, I only used a brush pen, but chose to use only a single consistent style and the paper edges served as the bounding frame.

Double Quote
Double Quote

Why do you need to try this?

Because less is more

When you have less, you find a way to make the most of what you have. That is human nature. When you have less time to finish a deadline, you become more productive. That is precisely where you can you draw your creativity. If your options limit you, you need to think of other ways to achieve your goals.

Eliminating distractions and noise

When you set constraints, you can focus on the task at hand. If you chose to limit your tool to a pencil, you could focus on what you can do with it. Because you are just using a pencil, you eliminate distractions and see things more clearly. Moreover, you will be able to identify things to improve. Or if the style is limited to one, you can see better how even the smallest things affect the big picture.

Constraint as a lettering prompt

Even if you run out of words to write, by adding limitations, you will end up with a lot of different outputs.

Freedom is crippling

We all strive for freedom, but contrary to popular belief, cultivating creativity means having to suppress some freedoms. Being too free to do anything is crippling. You will have a hard time directing your vision. You will have difficulty in pursuing the goal. But when there are constraints, you are more challenged to think outside the box and still find ways to deliver the result.

Spice things up by worrying about fewer things. You will be surprised at how it can improve your creativity.

Try out the different constraints above, and share your progress with me, and #designwithnate