James Vanderbeek stars in an episode of Room 104 on HBO. The series is in the middle of its first season, but it’s already done so well that HBO’s renewed it for a second season.
It’s a curious show, as it takes place in a single hotel room every episode. The same hotel room over and over and over again. The room itself is also extremely uninteresting. When the design team went to Mark Duplass, the creator of the show, with tons of ideas on what the room should look like, Mark shot them all down.
“No, I want the room to be as bland as possible.”
So how did Mark Duplass create such an interesting and succesful show with this limited pallette?
Our brains are lazy. Well, that’s not exactly fair. Our brains are great at conserving energy.
They’ve evolved to reserve the juice necessary to deal with things in our environment that are novel and potentially life altering. Hence why we tend to enjoy and remember the details of a new place we visit, but repeat visits become boring. It starts to blend together into a pattern. Unless something upsets that pattern.
It’s how we come up with ideas too. Thomas Ward, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, gave the model for which we come up with new ideas a name: we follow the path-of-least-resistance. When we generate new ideas, we often start with things, categories, and examples of what we already know because it’s easier.
Page Moreau, Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, however, wanted to know if we could get off that lazy path and become more creative.
In one of her studies, she had participants design a children’s toy given a palette of 20 possible objects. The twist was one group of participants could choose 5 of those objects themselves, and the other group had to use 5 objects picked for them.
The group who had the constraint of objects picked for them, were slightly more creative than the people who got to pick themselves.
The groups were then given yet another constraint. Some of the participants were allowed to use as many of the 5 objects they wanted, but other participants were told they had to use all 5.
Now, here’s where it got interesting. The folks who had their objects picked for them AND had to use all 5 of them, were the most creative of all the participants in the study by a lot.
In other words, the more constraints they were given, the more creative they got. The constraints knocked them off of their lazy path to less creative and familiar solutions.
I’m having a hard time finding a television show that can keep my interest. Too many all just seem the same. A group of friends in their apartments. Superheroes battling another mega boss.
Yesterday I tuned out of a show when the conflict of the scene was the Arbitrary Skepticism trope. “Hero is skeptical of problem and wants to leave. Needs convincing by the other characters.” I was sick of that when Scully from X-files created that conflict dozens and dozens of times during their run.
But Room 104 has captured a lot of attention. Why? It’s constraints. The fact that the whole show is constrained to this one bland room helps get the show’s staff off of their path-of-least-resistance.
And that’s not the only constraint. James Van Der Beek was only in a single episode because in every episode the room stays the same, but everything else changes. New cast. New era. Even a new genre. One episode is horror, another comedy, another heartfelt drama. I can’t even tell you what genre James show was, as it changes wildly during the episode :)
Mark Duplass, whether he realized it or not, tapped into what Page Moreau discovered. By adding these extra constraints to his show, he forced everyone to get off their lazy creative paths to finally create something interesting and original.
So, next time you find yourself struggling against your lack of options. Next time you find yourself wanting to utter something like “I’m stuck with my limited palette”. Just remember that more choice is actually a formula for boring and already done. Embrace your limited choices. Force yourself into more constraints. And you just might knock yourself of your own path of lazy thinking and create something that stands out.
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