The Power of Fewer Crayons

A story of innovation

Chris Stakutis   978 764 3488     August 2014   CTO www.concordsoftwareandexecutiveconsulting.com

I grew up in a very nice upper-middle class town (before the world seemed to be so obsessed with such labels and status).  I had crayons, of course.

My neighbor was somehow a bit wealthier (although you wouldn’t know it by their house) and my best friend as a young child was Janice.  She too had a box of crayons.

My box was your typical and simple “sleeve” of maybe 8 colors.  It was a single-layer deep, rudimentary, but quite adequate.  Janice had the big box of crayons -- I had never seen so many crayons in my life (plus it had one of those crayon-sharpeners built into the back side...do your remember such a thing?).

When I had to draw a picture, say of my house, I used the one and only brown crayon in my box (my parents were obsessed with having a brown-painted house...for 50 years).  When I had to color-in the two front doors, which were strangely fire-engine red, I used the single red crayon in my box.  When I colored-in pictures of family or friends I used the white crayon -- there was no beige.  Grass was green, sky was blue, driveway was black.  Let’s count:  6 or so colors.  My box was adequate.

Janice’s box had FOUR rows of perhaps 14 crayons across (which included beige by the way).  I was stunned.  I didn’t know even where to start, which crayon to use, or how to even sharpen the god damn things; being paper-based and you have tiny hands (I was accustomed to peeling and chewing-down to make the proper cone -- I’m sure that’s normal).  

Can you imagine if your car had an array of brake pedals?  One for highway merging, one for quicks stops, one for backing up...my god, where does it end?  But your car doesn’t.  It has a single brake pedal and it works exactly like your neighbor’s car’s peddle.

I suppose I was too young at the time to have any perspective on an unlimited supply of crayons.  Until I got to high school, most oddly.  Under my father’s incessant direction, I was (I’ll use the word encouraged) to take a modern art class.  In contrast, my preference was to spend all day in the computer lab and skip classes that had no relevance to me (mind you I still graduated with the most credits in the school history because I never took a “study hall” and always the highest math and science classes. Contrast reading European history versus computers, I put art below below the 10 years of French classes where I still can’t spell Voila).

Until I met Ms Craddock, the art teacher.

Craddock was probably late 30’s (which to me was like a grand mother) and dressed in those funny long printed dresses with over sized sweaters (always dark in color) and didn’t like to wear shoes.  Her hands and parts of her face were spotted with paint and yet despite her oddness of style she had a very gentle and slowness of speech (sharp contrast to my calculus teacher and I couldn’t stop that comparison).

On the first day she says “we are going to color today”. What? “With crayons.” What? I’m still digesting the edible bits from my child hood and I’m going to be implored to use crayons and not the Apple-I in the tech lab (for those of you that can even recall such equipment). But I promised I’d take the class and I think somehow I thought I’d learn more than from a Russian history class.

But here’s the interesting part.

Craddock goes into some smelly dark closet with dried paint on the floor and emerges with literally a shoe-box filled with crayons.  Oh, and let me tell you, there was a wide variety of color choices (some weren’t even broken).  Oh good I think to myself, it’s the neighbor all over again.  She says the following: Take a piece of coloring-paper of any color, and take only TWO crayons, no more.  And, draw me your best picture of the Vermont mountains and streams and bridges and clouded skies and critters running about.

Only two colors.  

Yet, I drew the best picture of my life (and might still have it in my basement).  Yes, it was an impossible challenge.  Think of all the colors you see in nature. In the sky. In the streams and trees and in the scurrying squirrels.  It simply could not be done.  But it was, and it was a compelling picture -- I used the few colors and also used lack of colors to describe an involved scene.

You may not be following the real point here, but sometimes (often?) creativity comes from intense limitation because your only solution must be innovation.  Imagine, having much less of something than you believed you need yet you created a solution regardless because you had no choice.

Essentially, the power of less, was in this case more.

© 2014 Chris Stakutis is an independent consultant, author, and software creator available to help your business.