Dr. Seuss: Innovating within Constraints

Point: Use a constraint to convert complexity into simplicity

Story: In 1954, Life magazine published an article on illiteracy among schoolchildren, reporting that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. “Pallid primers” featuring girls and boys who were “uniform, bland, idealized and terribly literal,” its author, John Hersey, contended. Publisher William Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin wanted to change that. He approached his friend Theodore Geisel (later known as Dr. Seuss) to write a much more lively primer. But he gave Geisel a challenge: the book could only use a vocabulary of 225 words, so that beginning readers could read it. Geisel took up the challenge. The result? The Cat in the Hat. Dr. Seuss used clever combinations of the 225 words and fanciful illustrations to create a playful story.

Action: A constraint limits the creative choices you have. Instead of viewing the constraint as merely negative and frustrating, consider the positive side: you can ignore those choices. Strip your problem to its basic elements. Then generate unusual combinations of those bare building blocks to look for a creative solution. This technique can be used in marketing, product development and strategy.

For more: Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel by Judith Morgan, Neil Morgan, Neil Bowen Morgan

3 Comments »Creativity, How-to, Innovation, New Product Development, Strategy

3 Responses to “Dr. Seuss: Innovating within Constraints”

  1. Phil Earnhardt Mar 2nd 2009 at 05:03 pm 1

    Brilliant. At first, it appears as if freedom is an expression of a lack of constraints — but there are always constraints. The true masters see constraints as an opportunity to express their freedom. To do this, the constraints are not to be avoided but embraced; the first step is to clearly identify what the constraints are.

    What would Theodore Geisel think of twitter?

  2. lawrence berezin Mar 2nd 2009 at 05:07 pm 2


    Interesting topic. Great analogy. Look at other similar examples, such as Twitter, One Sentence Story and blogging. Twitter forces users to focus on their core message and say it with less characters. Great learning tool.

    One Sentence Story is a website that asks you to tell a real life story in one sentence. The site reviews and publishes stories of its choice. Hemingway was challenged to tell a story in six words. He wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Still sends chills.

    When we write copy on our website, what level of education to we aim for? Certainly not MBA.

    The auto industry and banking industry better get used to constraints. Let’s see if innovation and transformation is a by product.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts.

  3. Andrea Meyer Mar 2nd 2009 at 05:25 pm 3

    What an excellent summation and addition, Phil, thank you! And what would Theodore Geisel think of Twitter? I bet he’d have fun with it. I can just see him playing & rhyming there in 140 characters. As he once said, “”I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” I’m sure he’d put teasers out there for us to keep us on our toes!

    Larry: just saw your comment as I was finishing up mine — you’ve addressed Phil’s point and beyond by sharing the “one sentence story” website – that’s a fascinating premise. (http://www.onesentence.org/stories/) And how masterfully Hemingway executed his six-word story, wow. I’m with you in hoping that the auto and banking industries are able to innovate within their constraints.