Why designers shouldn’t think outside the box

Have you ever had a client who gives you this challenge?: “Just think completely out of the box on this one.”

You’ve probably just gone along with the idea assuming the client knows best (even thought I’ve told you they don’t) and the minute you sit down to “think outside the box,” your stumped.

No great ideas.

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No good vibes.

Why? Because what your client forgot to mention when he asked you to think outside the box was exactly which box to think outside of.

Why you need a box…

In order for any project to be successful, run smoothly, and achieve it’s goals, you need “a box.”

What your client should have said was:

“We always cater to adults with more conservative design, restrictive fonts, and long copy. What I need you to do is think outside that box and cater to a younger audience–teenagers.”

Now you know what direction to take your design. Your job now is to think outside the little box (designing for adults) but inside the bigger box (designing for teens).

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Outside the little box, inside the bigger box

Every project that a client hopes you can get a little more creative with needs a “little box” you can think outside of and a “bigger box” you work inside of.

That makes your job, as a designer, to do the best work you can within your box.

The bigger box could be budget (“we want something more extravagant than usual–little box–but still can’t spend more than $10,000–bog box.”)

There should always be a little box that you can think outside of and a bigger box to enhance creativity.

You heard me right, “boxes” don’t restrict, they enhance creativity.

Boxes liberate, they don’t restrict

I learned a long time ago that if I have a completely open design project, I either usually get it completely wrong the first few tries until the client gives me a few more guidelines (boxes) or I can’t even seem to get started.

After all, why do you think we have creative briefs? To restrict us? Nope.

To liberate us.

The more we know about the target audience, the budget, the time frame, the product or service we’re designing for, the company’s branding strategy (all very common and very real “boxes”) the more likely we are to create something amazing.

Boxes rock, right?

Do you agree with what I’ve said here today? Either way, leave a comment and add to this post–I’d love to hear what you say about thinking outside the box (or not).

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.


  1. Simon Stanyer says:

    Interesting article. I was pulled in by the title expecting to read about how today’s designers are not creative enough and should not even begin to consider ‘thinking outside the box’… What I found was pleasing. I agree that boxes aren’t all that bad.

  2. Thank you for bringing well-reasoned clarity to this issue. The cliche has certainly become tiresome, but it’s best to counter vagueness with a request for useful information!

  3. We work with graphics which has a job of communication. To communicate the correct message is in itself a restriction (box). To have no boxes whatsoever is fine art. So I agree, we do need boxes. Boxes with loose tops so that ideas can flow in and out.

  4. Thanks for this post! Finally there is someone with the same idea about the “out-of-the-box”-oneliner. Maximum creativity with a guideline. And just as in creative software, guidelines makes life a little easier…

  5. I fully agree. I started out this whole graphic design gig with the notion of fulfilling the idea of “seeing what you can come up with that will fit my business name”, and then I spent nearly three times the amount of time to revise the concept than it took to come up with the initial concept, just to match the actual needs, wants, desires of the client. It wasn’t worth my time or the clients and both parties often ended up very frustrated. Now I have a questionnaire that all of my clients are required to fill out prior to the first thought being put to their design. This provides insights to my small business client’s personality, history of the business and ideas of how they envision the design before we even get started. It has saved a lot of time and it also allows me to sell the design concept by referring back to specific details the client has mentioned in their questionnaire.

  6. So true. I have had this experience many times. I love the box.

  7. As Nora Roberts once said:

    “You can fix anything but a blank page.”

    Without some sort of direction, a blank page or canvas can be daunting. It’s great to have boxes.

  8. Biggest mistake I ever made was taking a job with NO design guidelines whatsoever. “I am open to anything” the client said. Yeah right. So how come after six revisions the design ended up looking like a very well known design.

    Now, if the client can’t give me some guidelines, or at least show me something he likes, then I pass on the job. The box exists on every design, whether we know it or not.

  9. Great post Preston! And I definitely agree. Personally, I never really cared for the expression “think outside the box” and this post explains why so perfectly. Without some project direction and idea as to the limitations of time, budget, etc. “thinking outside the box” is a creative prison, not a paradise.

  10. TTodd Sledzik says:

    How do evaluate the strength of a solution if you have no parameters (box)? Even a client that claims to have no guidelines, has guideline. They’re just not consciously aware of them or don’t know how to express them.

  11. Love it, Preston! 🙂

    I always find the more I know, the better I can create something to their liking. I’m working on a project now that they just “wanted to see what I would come up with” despite my asking specifics (it’s a big account so I took a chance) and they disliked the first proof and gave me all the specifics in the response. *sigh* Was that so hard?! 🙂

    At any rate, it’s costing them extra because of how much time I’ve spent redoing the project. I hate it when projects go like this because the client gets a little grumbly about the extra cost when it could have been prevented, and I have to stick to my guns or get paid peanuts.

  12. Even though I am a graphic designer, I majored in psychology. There is an old study that placed children on a wide open playground. The children stayed near the center of the playground and did not venture out. Once a fence was erected around the same playground area, the children ventured all over, even up to the fence line. With boundaries… or a box… we are free to roam far and wide. It is when we do not have a boundary/box that we play it safe and wind up missing the mark, not exploring all that we design.

  13. You never made boxes clearer than they already are. Love the analogy and angle of the you approach a client’s brief. This is really awesome information to share. You’re right, by giving us a box, it actually allows us to see beyond what’s in front of us. We may be creative but we can see out of thin air ;p

  14. Excellent post! As Kerry said in an earlier comment: Graphic Design is communication. When starting a design project I need to know: What is the message? Who is the audience?
    What are the project’s goals? Often the client has an idea of what they have in mind and it’s helpful if that is shared right at the beginning.

  15. Every client has a box but it’s also our job to push them outside their comfort zone. That’s the reason, we have clients fill out a Brand Profile questionnaire before any work begins. It establishes creative direction, goals, and a client’s overall design sensibility. Gotta have a plan!

  16. a box, like a grid, is good for the soul. an organizing principle, loose as it may be, provides context that strengthen the message.

  17. Kepler Sorrenson says:

    I agree totally but would suggest that the box is created and necessary by virtue of the fact that we are designing on behalf of someone else. Therefore they create the box. It is only on our own test projects or sandboxes that we can truly think freely. Hence some of the amazing personal sites out there truly resemble more art than design. At the end of the day even artists are limited by the medium they chose to work with as we are by browser limitations etc.

  18. I love this way of thinking. A box within a box to think “out” of. How refreshing. I’ve read about designers scoffing at the idea of using a brief, or ignoring the creative brief completely. I’m a firm believer in lots of research to write a better brief and use it to really produce something amazing.

  19. This is very worthy article, I agreed that all! great for the designer!

  20. Excellent piece of writing, I am viewing back regularly to hunt for fresh news.

  21. Shirley A Burns says:

    Excellent! Required reading.

  22. I also have a set of questions I ask a client complete before starting a project. Great post, it is motivation to keep clients on track early in the process.

  23. Great idea.

    I love the box.

  24. Great article. It’s a real pain when a design has to be revisited over and over because the initial brief was too… brief.

  25. I am viewing back regularly to hunt for fresh news, I love the box, It’s a real pain when a design has to be revisited over and over because the initial brief was to brief t5hanking for shearing:)

  26. Lagoonblues says:

    I agree completely. I keep getting clients who say, “just do what you think looks best, I don’t know anything about design.” Not helpful.

  27. Excellent Concept of Box !!

  28. Excellent article! Incredibly helpful.

  29. Excellent article, really opens up the mind

  30. I liked your comment, that we need to know about the target audience, budget, timeframe and other details to actually deliver a usable design.
    Its true, most people would have difficulty, deriving anything fruitful out of totally open requirements.

  31. Agreed. Of course we need boxes but sometimes you’ll find that clients simply don’t know what box they are in or what box they should be in. It’s also a web designers job to advise to best fit for a particular business/product.

    (projects are much easier if the client knows what they’re doing though)

  32. I’ve always been put off by this phrase, and the clients who use it. The flip response I always want to use is, there is no box.” The problem is that most often, to meet the needs of their market, clients’ marketing NEEDS to be inside the box that will be recognized by their market. Truly innovative marketing, while a wondrous thing, typically requires much more marketing to adjust the market to the new approach to what they are used to.

    I do love the context of this article to help a client express what they actually mean. Beats what is usually going through my mind at the time . . .

  33. We’ve been discussing “thinking outside the box” in web design. We love the way that website design is so driven by the limitations of the form (and constantly pushing at those limitations too). So much so, we’ve written a blog post on the subject.


  34. Agreed! Why can’t they? Because their Box is usually their catalogue library, all same old, same old! In order to find “Boxes” they would need to do R&D but they lack time or interest. We try to give them ideas and give them a “Box with tools” but it seems really hard to teach an old dog new tricks. For those who want to see our “Box” check backlitdecor.com.


  1. […] outside of the box, but who’s box are they thinking out of? A fascinating post written by Preston D Lee talks about that […]

  2. […] As Preston so wisely put it: “you need a box.” […]


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