Outside The Box Isn't

By | Tuesday, February 07, 2023 Leave a Comment
You've heard the phrase "thinking outside the box", I presume? I don't particularly care for it myself, but it comes up regularly as a euphemism for being creative. It's an attempt at visualizing the notion of creativity. The rules you have to work under are expressed as rigid lines that constrain your boundaries...
Some of the rules may be common (the project needs to fit in a standard #10 envelope). Some of the the rules may be vague (it needs to be eye-catching). Some of the rules may be legal (you can't use someone else's intellectual property without paying for it). Some of the rules may unstated (the text has to be in English so it can be understood by Americans). Some of the rules may be entirely arbitrary (the piece should be predominantly yellow because the project manager happens to like yellow). Those rules limit what you can do; they box you in.

At least, that's the perception.

There ARE indeed rules in place, but they rarely box you in completely. They provide a framework to start from and might SUGGEST a box but, in reality, the confines of your box probably look more like this...
...or this...
In each of these cases, you can pretty readily discern the edges of a box. This is that "closure" Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics. You see enough of the framework to mentally complete the idea; you don't need to see the full outline of the box to understand what it's supposed to look like.

But here's the thing: there's a lot of white space breaking through that box already. Those four sides are NOT solid. The suggested outlines aren't necessarily the exact confines that you have to follow.

The four outlines above still reference that same lines as that broken box, and still reflect that same basic box structure, but are all interpreted differently. (Note that I still imposed upon myself an additional restriction here that all the box edges had to be straight!) The box edges remain perfectly intact; I just took liberties with the spaces that were available.

"The box" is a pretty tired metaphor at this point. But regardless of whether or not it's invoked, there are rules dropped down on you all the time for every project. But none of them are ever so complete as you might find in a Schrödinger's cat experiment. The rules are just guidelines that provide a loose structure to work from. The actual implementation based on that structure always remains up to the individual.

I've spent most of my career online finding ways to circumvent the technical roadblocks that are put in front of me. Harry Houdini made a name for himself by proving no box was escape-proof. Jack Kirby repeatedly found ways to work around the storytelling restraints that were continually placed on him.
The work that people remember, the work that people will credit you for is the work in which you do something different from the implied structure that you're given. Find the rules you need to follow, but don't feel constrained. Take those rules as a challenge to find where the holes in the box are. Don't look outside the box; look for how it's not even a box in the first place.
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