Rules – the necessary frames for creativity

September 6, 2016 at 9:35 AM
In this blogpost I will explore how rules can aid the creative process. Often seen as limiting factor, whether self-imposed, physical constraints or administered by others, rules can also act as the foundation upon which the creative process is built; within rules, limitation can turn into opportunity.

Indeed, it is my premise here that rules might not be antithetical to creativity and instead facilitate it. If there is no frame to create within, there can be no creativity and rules are meant to set these frames. As I will explore in the following, various creative practices have their own ‘rules’ where skilled creators cultivate habits and routines precisely in order to work creatively. This ‘Janus head’ – the dialectic relationship between rules and creativity – will be explored from the perspective of a socio-material and distributed approach to creativity (Tanggaard, 2013; Glăveanu, 2014). I will use examples from the creative practice of photography but I will venture that the distinctions and conclusions are as relevant for any creative domain – including that of Artificial Intelligence.


Main take-aways:

  • Rules are not antithetical to creativity and might instead facilitate creativity
  • Know thyself – and the rules
  • Rules can be both constraints and/or conventions
  • We should cultivate a heigthened attention to rules
  • Rules can be the frames needed to create and grow rather than a nuisance to be endured


In a recent book chapter (Juelsbo 2016) I wrote about creative processes and rules. Being a trained photographer I wanted to explore my old practice of professional photography from a creativity research perspective. Having recently returned to shooting with analogue cameras and Leica cameras I had seen a qualitative lift in my output. I simply produced better pictures when I used old cameras and ones with fewer options compared to my usual digital setup. Why was this? For years I had chased technical excellence and it had worked up until a point. When I was invited to contribute to a new anthology on creativity, I decided that I wanted to write about the rules governing the fields of creative practices and to see, if I could grasp why I became a better photographer when I played by other rules. So far so good. The Leica camera was sitting on my desk as I wrote the chapter and now again writing this post. It looks heavy, worn around the edges and like something from another era. Picking it up forces me to become re-accustomed with its heft and the limited opportunities I have to control it via its 4-5 buttons and dials. It does as much to me as a photographer as I do to it.

From the perspective of socio-materiality research on creativity, an item like a camera is not a passive medium for us to manipulate or control – it’s very much a substantial component of creativity that actively co-constructs or mediates what the photographer is able to create. Elaborating on previous and current researches that sought to establish context, social practices and the environment as more than ‘a bowl to the soup’, a neutral container for individuals (Lave, 2011; Lave & Wenger, 1991), socio-materiality designates a heightened focus on the objects and artifacts we surround ourselves with. The artifacts invite us to engage in certain practices and these practices become physical manifestation of the rules afforded in turn by the artifacts.

When I saw the working table of another photographer, award winning Jan Grarup, in my Facebook feed, I was surprised to find an old analogue Leica camera amongst all his digital stuff: Wires and chargers all over, two screens, Macbook Pro, external drives – and then this old dingy camera sitting next to a few rolls of film. It was hard to make sense of and I had to ask him why he would deliberately handicap himself in this day and age when he was dependent on speed and getting his shots from war and conflict zones asap to the editors of, e.g., New York Times. In his words it enabled him to focus on the essential: Getting the best shot.

To explain how humans and artifacts interact dynamically in the practice of photography, we can turn to Gibson’s notion of affordances. The analogue camera, using physical films that needs to be loaded into it, affords us certain actions and not others, ‘affecting’ us in a similar manner to how we ‘affect’ it through manipulation. The constraints offered by the camera become subtle manifestations of material-imposed rules springing from the granted affordances. In this way, the photographer and the chosen camera become an inseparable and interdependent whole (Latour, 2005). This intersection between human doing and knowing represents a flexible engagement with the world, entailing open-ended processes of improvisation with the social, material, and experiential resources at hand.

Shooting analogue film, you manipulate a tangible thing – a celluloid strip of negative imprinted with light and you work with an immediate sense of materiality. Digital photographers have by and large become digital symbol manipulators, but returning to old practices we honor the fundamental knowledge of the tangible. This fundamental understanding of how our tools work is important in helping us understand our craft and to understand our world. Using a fully mechanical device doesn’t allow you to have that technical detachment.

Using old equipment doesn’t make me or Jan creative per se but I will argue that the choice of use holds significance if we look at it from an analytical socio-material stance. This self-imposed rule (using old cameras) leads Jan to play by the material-imposed rules, the affordances of the camera, while breaking some of the social-imposed rules (convention of the field; shooting digitally in the 21th century). Choosing with a specific camera brings a different or at least an additional set of rules to the game: The constraints or material-imposed rules of the chosen camera. These rules coexist with or are governed by the conventions of the field of photography and the norms of the society – the social-imposed rules. These rules in turn direct what constitutes a good photo, what you can and can’t photograph, how to photograph etc.

Cultivating a heightened attention to the different rules at play in your chosen field might help you orient yourself as a creative practitioner as the rules can become the espalier the vine can climb and be the frames needed to create and grow rather than a nuisance to be endured.

The photographer can’t envision the perfect shot without actively getting out there trying to capture it. It is by knowing the rules of the field and being sensitive to the socio-material affordances granted by the equipment that one learns to play the game – and to develop it further. These artifacts constitute important parts of the process of creativity and in this way creative processes and products are not thought of as separate entities but viewed as an interdependent whole with various rules shaping the pas de deux.

It is my opinion that we need a renewed focus on the relationship between creativity and rules and, thus, for an extended view on creativity. Instead of limiting our view on creativity to be solely occupied with either the creative person or process, I argue that it is in the inter-play between person and process, idea and object that new things and practices materialize. When creativity and rules are seen as part of everyday life and ingrained in daily life practice it becomes a process of making sense and conducting one’s life with practical wisdom (Sternberg, 1998). The subtle or explicit rules - constraints and conventions - we engage with knowingly or unknowingly shape and guide our creative practice. Irrespective of them being self-imposed, material-imposed, social-imposed or an amalgam: Learn the rules in order to manipulate them – creatively.



Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Glăveanu, V. P. (2012). What can be done with an egg? Creativity, material objects, and the theory of affordances. The Journal of Creative Behavior46(3), 192-208.

Juelsbo, T. (2016). Rules. In Creativity—A New Vocabulary (pp. 137-146). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. (2011). Apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of general psychology2(4), 347.

Tanggaard, L. (2013). The sociomateriality of creativity. Culture and Psychology, 19(1), 20-32.