The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints 2

1 Jan

Amanda and I and two other EIPER students were in a team at the EIPER retreat at Jasper Ridge. It was fall 2010 and we were participating in a workshop using the gift giving prompt that is often used to introduce people to design thinking: How to reinvent gift giving. We were in the ideation phase, and were asked to brainstorm under different constraints. In ideation, the goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can in a non-judgmental and quick fashion. The non-judgmental mindset allows you to go far and wide and notorious and ridiculous, because sometimes, that’s just what you need to trigger the right idea. The constraints are imposed to help focus your thinking in different creative directions, usually one at a time. Constraints allow you to go deeper in that direction while suspending other directions and thoughts temporarily. Typical constraints are realistic, like every idea must have “zero cost” or “a cost of $1 million dollars”, or beyond reality, such as “make every idea require magic”. Ideation and constraints sometimes take you in a direction you would perhaps otherwise not have thought of. Something like this happened in our ideation phase that day. Rather than just thinking out of the box, constraints helped us fly out of it.

We were asked to come up with as many gift ideas as we could that were zero cost and carbon neutral. This constraint turned out to be easy for us to fulfill, as our group naturally thought along those lines. We wrote some ideas on our large post-it: a picnic in the park with food from the garden, a heartfelt speech given by colleagues at work; a lovely letter, and so on. Since the so-called constraint was so much in line with our natural brainstorming tendencies, we felt we needed more of a challenge, so we asked our facilitator what we should do. Like good design students, we were willing to go in the next direction with the next constraint and see what would happen.

Our facilitator said: “Oh, ok. Why don’t you try turning the constraint on its head. Make it cost as much as possible cause as much environmental damage as possible!!” Now this gave us the heebie-jeebies but in the spirit of play we embraced this constraint and rolled with it. We soon had some ridiculous ideas like holding a party at the Trump Tower and flying to different parts of the world to compose different parts of a message of gratitude. This last idea suddenly struck a chord with all of us – we could implement this in a free and carbon neutral way! We could ask people from around the world to video record a message and email it to us, then compile them into a large message of gratitude, and that would be the gift. We got excited about this idea!

It was now time to prototype this idea. We decided to focus on a recipient. We chose Helen Doyle, Associate Director of E-IPER. We decided the message would entail thanking her for all her hard work for us students. We cut large square holes in different colored sheets of cardstock and used them as screens through which we would poke our heads to say our parts of the message. We wrote labels containing names of locations and stuck them to the bottom of our “screens.” We now had 3 excited students, and fuchsia, green and yellow screens. Next, we came up with a script.

We decided to simulate the feeling of each speaker being in a different country or state by referring to the weather. So, since I’m from Fiji, my message began with, “Hi I’m in Fiji where the weather is warm and humid…” We each introduced ourselves in this way then said something specific that we wanted to thank Helen for. I said something like, “Thank you Helen for always going over and beyond what we could expect, and for always having our best interests at heart.”

When we presented this prototype, we stood on tables holding the screens to frame our faces, and made our audience – the rest of the retreat participants, facilitators, Helen and other staff – stand in front of us at ground level and watch.

This prototype got us so excited that we were inspired to make real gifts in this way. I have yet to make one with video, but I went on to collect quotes and photos from about 20 friends and compiled an e-book for a loved one for his birthday. This ideation exercise with what seemed at first to be an  undesirable and extremely uncomfortable constraint took us to an idea that we implemented in various ways and won’t forget for a long time. This is just one example of the power of using uncomfortable constraints.


One Response to “The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints 2”


  1. Embracing the shake | researchasdesign - May 28, 2013

    […] is holding us back from generating a whole new set of solutions is our perception of limits. We use constraints in brainstorming to challenge ourselves to move past the ideas that first come to mind. Constraints can also be […]

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