Why Spontaneity Comes from Following the Rules

This video of a conversation between Brian Eno and SimCity game designer Will Wright (via Fresh Creation) reveals a surprising truth about creativity.

The most beautiful, complex and apparently spontaneous creations are often produced by following a few very simple, very rigid rules.

In their talk, Eno and Wright show some computer animations in which each coloured cell on the screen is programmed to analyse the behaviour of the cells next to it, and alter its own behaviour in response.

For example: “If three of your neighbours are alive, you’ll survive into the next generation. Or if only one of them is alive, you’re going to die.”

When the program runs at high speed these rules change the colours of the cells in each ‘generation’, creating complex patterns of colours flickering across the screen.

Suppose you had to make this as a film, what we’re seeing here. It would be very complicated, that’s a lot of information if you had to specify it as a visual phenomenon like that.

But what actually has happened is that there’s this tiny little set of rules and this landscape for them to work in. And the set of rules is typically like a 2K document or something like that, and you get all that richness.

So this is the power of generative systems, that you make seeds rather than forests.

(Brian Eno)

The full version of the talk (available on Fora.tv) references Richard Dawkins’ observation that a typical willow tree seed only contains 800K of data, which would fit on an old-fashioned floppy disk.

To extend this metaphor, it sounds as though Eno and Wright are suggesting that creators are more like gardeners than architects, planting and watering the seeds to help them grow, but with no control over the emerging forms.

And these [computer animations] are very much the type of thing where you have no idea what it’s going to look like, when you build the rules. You turn it on and it’s always just a total surprise.

(Will Wright)

Simple rules like this underly the phenomenal complexity of Wright’s classic game SimCity:

SimCity is underlaid by a series of very simple cellular automata like this, and they have a set of very simple rules for crime and traffic and pollution. And on top of that we overlay all these nice graphics of cars and factories and all that.

But really underneath it’s a very simple rule-based system like this, that allows us to simulate things, and it took a while to actually discover the rules but once we put together a few simple rules we got to the stage where we were seeing emergent phenomena.

We were seeing things like urban gentrification just with the simple interactions of the crime / land value rules and stuff like that. It seemed like it was a much more complex simulation than in fact it really was.

(Will Wright)

Something to bear in mind next time you try out the new organic shop in your area.

A brilliant example of a generative system in Eno’s work is 77 Million Paintings, in which he fed 300 of his own paintings into a remixing program:

(If you like this clip, get the software DVD and watch it on a high-resolution screen. It will take your breath away. NB it plays on a computer, not a DVD player.)

Play It Simple

A point that comes up repeatedly in the Eno/Wright talk is that complex results emerge from simple rules. No rules mean there is no system, so nothing is generated. But if you add too many rules and risk breaking the system. The trick is to find just enough rules to get the system under way without destroying it prematurely.

Listening to the talk, I was reminded of playing improvisation games at The Spontaneity Shop: when actors try to improvise a scene in which ‘anything goes’, the results are flat and lifeless.

But introduce a simple rule such as ‘one of you is higher status and the other’, and it starts to come alive. Tweak the rules slightly – ‘one of you is the servant but acts higher status than the master’ – and you have a recipe for spontaneous comedy.

Twitter is another good example of a generative system. When I first tried Twitter, I didn’t see the point. There was so little I could do. Type a 140 character message? Get messages from other people? Is that all?

But when I was persuaded to persist with Twitter, I discovered the incredible richness of the conversations and connections it facilitates. Now you can find me there most days. It’s one of the very few web applications I would genuinely miss if it disappeared overnight.

I’m not the first one to be puzzled by Twitter’s lack of ‘obvious’ features that can be found in similar – but less successful – networks such as FriendFeed or Plurk. But Eno and Wright would probably argue that Twitter is so successful because its rules are so simple.

But how can you know in advance which rules will bring you the best creative results? Which ideas should you pursue and implement, and which should you leave on the drawing-board?

You can’t.

Which means you have to try things, play around with them, test quickly and test often. Allow failure to tag along as a daily playmate.

Isn’t that the beauty of real creativity, that you wake up every morning not knowing what you’re going to discover?

What Do You Think?

What do you make of the idea that complex phenomena are created and determined by simple rules?

What other examples of generative systems can you think of – in the arts, sciences, business and society?

What difference would it make to your work if you thought of yourself as making seeds rather than forests?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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  1. Eye Of The Beholder | October 29, 2009


  1. No rules – you find yourself staring at the proverbial blank canvas, which can be very intimidating. Add even a little structure and you have something to brace yourself against; a solid starting point that helps you focus.

    Failure – I’m reminded of a quote by Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, “hmm…. that’s funny….”

    We don’t learn much if we don’t fail.

    This is a great Monday morning post – lots of good stuff to mull over.

  2. How fortuous to stumble accross this…The point Stacey makes is absolutely true…I think we feel inhibited by too much rules and then proceed to resist any and all rules, which is just as counter productive! I’m glad I finally got this! 🙂

  3. Kevin MacDonell says:

    Reminds me of that much-hyped book, “A New Kind of Science”. I haven’t watched the posted video – perhaps they reference it there – but this post strongly reminded me of the central idea, which is that a very simple set of rules can give rise to enormous complexity, with possible explanations for every sort of apparently highly-organized phenomenon, including life.

  4. I guess it really depends on the system. For instance, Facebook probably wouldn’t work if it was as simple as Twitter is, but Twitter’s environment creates a playground for users and developers alike.

    Then there’s the learning curve factor and the task of learning an entirely new system. This is why most new platforms don’t make it…we just don’t have time. Facebook showed us how to be more productive there than we were on MySpace, and Twitter showed us that it doesn’t take any longer to Tweet than it does to text someone.

  5. @ Stacey – Thanks, and love the Asimov quote!

    @ hofmeyr – Yeah, rules rule! 🙂

    @ Kevin – I’ve not seen the book, but it sounds like a similar idea.

    @ Nathan – Are you suggesting that Facebook works? 😉

  6. Kevin MacDonell says:





    I saw and heard a lot about it when it came out 6 or 7 years ago, but not much since.

  7. If only I could discover the simple rules behind making a novel into a best-seller – ahhh!

  8. Thanks Kevin.

    @ Anthony James – In the words of W.H. Auden, “If I could tell you I would let you know.” 😉

  9. Michael Costello says:

    This is such a interesting concept. I have been intrigued by it for as long as I can rmember writing, 15 or 16 years now. When I was in grad school a friend gave me a book called the Oulipo Compendium. The Oulipo are an international group of artists, mathematicians, scientists, etc. who devise rules and constraints to create “potential literature.” Several of its members are successful writers and poets. The only American member I have discovered is Harry Mathews. I highly recommend him. Other members include(d) Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Raymond Queneau, and Ian Monk. In the words of Raymond Queneau, Oulipo’s co-founder, Oulipians are “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.” Anyone who is is interested in creativity should become acquainted with this group and their work. Some of it is pretty mindblowing. Offshoot groups have formed too, constraints for visual artists, musicians, and even cooks.
    Thank you for this post.

  10. Thanks Michael, fascinating example. Don’t suppose you’ve got a spare Oulipo membership pass? 😉