The origins of originality

Why creative freedom is the enemy of disruptive thinking

When I was a child, I would visit the South of France with my parents and sisters, venturing up bumpy tracks, hoping to catch a glimpse of a wild boar. We’d be crammed into a bright yellow Citroen 2CV, with flip windows, a rubber fold-out roof, and the odd loose wire under the steering wheel. I remember the joyful feeling of riding, top down, in this eccentric automobile that made other cars seem dull by comparison. Even when my parents pulled up on the side of a French D road after breaking down for the twentieth time (damn that loose wire), they too seemed undeterred in their enthusiasm for the affectionately known ‘umbrella on wheels’. 

I think it’s fair to say that many around the world felt the same way. So popular was the 2CV that it continued in production for 42 years, from 1948 till 1990. Only the Hindustan Ambassador, Morgan 4/4 and original VW Beetle have beaten that production run. By comparison, the average lifespan of a car model today is six years.

Then a couple of months ago, it seemed like history might be repeating itself when Citroen released one of the most original cars in a generation: Ami, whose name means ‘friend’ in French.

Citroen Ami side profile
Citroen Ami side profile

Ami is a dinky polypropylene cube on wheels that, at 2.4 metres long and 1.4 metres wide, makes a mini look like an estate car. It’s a fully electric two-seater that has a top speed of 45km/h (28mph) and a battery that supports a range of 75km (46 miles). All for €6,000.

It raises an interesting question – what’s behind these two brilliant innovations from the French car manufacturer? 

The design brief is a good place to start.

First consider the one that Citroen set its engineers back in the thirties:

“It needs to be able to carry four farmers and over 100 pounds of their goods and harvested crops to market over unpaved roads, and manage something like 80mpg while doing so. And they might be carrying eggs, so make sure the car can drive across a ploughed field while it's loaded up with eggs, and that the eggs won't break. Also, sometimes they might need to carry big stuff like furniture, so make sure you design in a solution for that.”

The result was an astoundingly lightweight body made from aluminum to save on fuel and costs; self-levelling suspension to stop the eggs from scrambling; and a roof that rolled back almost to the rear bumper, perfect for accommodating all manner of awkwardly shaped French furniture, from your armoires to your chaise lounges. 

An original ad for the 2CV
An original ad for the 2CV

It’s testament to the car’s originality that the 2CV was originally panned by the motoring press. British Autocar wrote that the 2CV “ the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervour”. But the people disagreed and within months, there was a five-year waiting list. 

Now consider the design brief for the Citroen Ami (albeit a little less romantic than its distant cousin): 

“To provide easier access to city centres, micromobility for everyone and a real alternative to scooters, bicycles, mopeds and public transport, and at reasonable cost.”

What transpired was a light quadricycle that is legal for a French 14-year old to drive; money-saving ideas like identical doors (one opens backwards and the other frontwards), to make the monthly installments for a brand new Ami the same price as a Paris Metro rail pass; and a battery that charges in just 3 hours from a standard electrical socket – just like your smartphone. Tick, tick, tick.

The Ami's identical front and rear opening doors
The Ami's identical front and rear opening doors

Rather than constraining creativity, what Citroen understood with the 2CV and now Ami is that constraints, paradoxically, inspire more creativity and lead to more original outcomes. 

Psychological experiments support this finding. In one study, participants were told to design a toy for children, when given five weirdly shaped blocks selected from a larger set of pieces. The least constrained scenario, in which participants were allowed to pick as many or few of the blocks as they liked surprisingly produced the least creative answers. Instead, the most constrained group, where people were given five blocks randomly and had to use all five, was actually the most creative, both in process and outcomes (1). 

Ethan Mollick, associate professor at the Wharton School, neatly explains why constraints inspire creativity in his new book challenging startup myths: “constraints help because they force you to change your thinking and break out of old frames” (2). 

If you’ll excuse the shameless plug, I see one clear lesson for creativity as regards branding, which is this: know your limits. 

Nike’s success is limited by consumer’s laziness. Dyson is constrained by consumer’s indifference. Both businesses are acutely aware of this reality. 

The point of your brand strategy isn’t to list out your strengths, it’s to discover the greatest challenge to getting people to change their behaviour and consider buying what you’re selling. It’s why Nike motivates first, then sells trainers second. It’s why Dyson makes a household appliance seem like a supercar sitting in your utility room.

Once you understand your constraints – the eggs you need to save from breaking while driving across a ploughed field – you’ll have set the parameters for disruptive thinking and have a shot at developing truly original outcomes.

1. C. Page Moreau and Darren Dahl, “Constraints and consumer Creativity” in Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods That Drive New Ideas, ed. Arthur B. Markman and Kristin L. Wood (Oxford University Press, 2009), 104
2. E. Mollick, “The Unicorn’s Shadow: Combating the Dangerous Myths that Hold Back Startups, Founders, and Investors (Wharton School Press, 2020)