Scrappy = Creativity In Disguise

Every January, our family designates the month “no buy month”. For 30 days, the rule is that we can only purchase groceries and household essentials like toilet paper and toothpaste. Everything else is off the table. It’s sort of like a spending diet, and I’ve come to look forward to January because it reveals to me again and again that creativity and innovation are born from constraints.

Here’s an example from this past January. I’ve recently taken an interest in tropical houseplants. I was dying to go and buy some new ones for the collection. Since it was no buy month, I instead researched propagation methods and learned about dividing plants and stem cutting. Did you know that many plants, when removed from the soil, sprout new roots in water? You take away the ideal conditions and the plant responds with a new approach. So here we are, me and the plant, doing new and different things because of the constraint of me not spending money.

A key part to the success of our no-buy periods is an attitude that less money is a constraint, not a barrier. It isn’t “I can’t do this” but “HOW can I do this?” (I assume the plant feels the same way.) That reframe is powerful, and I use it all the time in my work.

In my 17 years as a web designer/graphic designer/visual designer/creative strategist I’ve had the opportunity to work on websites that cost $5,000 and others that had a price tag of over $200,000. Believe me when I say that big budgets are not necessarily better. Sometimes it seems like our consumer society has convinced us that you can solve any problem if only you could throw more money to it. But look at nature! How many beautiful innovations have come about with absolutely no money changing hands/paws/leaves?

With smaller budgets, my attitude is “how can we be the most efficient? How can we get to 80% and not worry about that last 20%?” Sometimes big budgets mean that we work on making things 100%, meanwhile spending 3x as much money. (Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you definitely need some kind of budget. Trying to do things too cheaply has its own set of problems.)

At this point in my career, I prefer working with constraints. Budget conversations are an opportunity for creativity to emerge. Rather than saying “We need a PDF annual report and we have about $5,000 to spend. Can you do what we have specified for that price?” you could say “We know we want to reach our supporters and inspire them about the work we’ve done in the past year. What are different ways we could achieve this with a budget of $5,000?”

The little urban flower on the sidewalk crack in front of my house doesn’t think “I need more soil (a bigger budget), I can’t do this right now.” She just works with what she’s got. And waits for new conditions to come (which of course they always will).