I've never liked the expression, "Thinking outside the box." I'm not against the principle---advanced artists/designers/whatever often come up with amazing solutions that defy convention. But defying convention is not, in itself, a virtue. I've argued for years that finding creative ways to work within "the box," or using rules and conventions to your advantage, is an art in itself. But a difficult project I worked on for the last couple years taught me why people use that phrase so much: Stupid boxes.
Let me be clear: a great box of conditions can be more inspiring than sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper. But a stupid box creates mental paradoxes, irreconcilable contradictions that make great solutions nearly impossible to find. Not that it's really impossible. In fact, finding an elegant solution to an impossible problem feels like the crowning moment of your career, if it ever happens. But most of the time, it's frustrating for everyone involved.
I feel like I'm being too vague, so here are some examples.
Good box: design a scary monster that still appeals to children and uses projectile attacks.
Bad box: design a terrifying yet expressive monster that appeals to children but that teenagers think is cool and not goofy, and make his arms into rocket launchers, and its head should be a chainsaw, so use something other than the face to make it expressive, oh, and the rocket launcher and chainsaw need to be made out of flesh.
Anyway, I still think it's a good skill to think inside the box. But my advice is this: if you feel like the box you're working inside is stupid, and if you have any leverage whatsoever on your project, do everything in your power to change that box so it no longer makes your life miserable! Then you will be happier and I will stop ranting about it.
In other news, some art I did for the Avalanche blog: