Tag Archives: Constraints

Embracing the shake

28 May

From one perspective, limits are those things that hold us back. We often dream of what we could do if we only had more time, more grant money, better mentorship, etc. We frequently frame problems as how to eliminate constraints. How can I get more attention from a busy advisor? How can I maximize my time and efficiency?

While sometimes these are useful ways of looking at a problem space, other times what 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 useful in shaping solutions, when limits are embraced and worked within. For instance, I regularly make it a practice to spend an hour or less on a first stab at a presentation, to force myself to get at the essence of what I’m trying to say.

An attendee from our spring workshop shared this Ted talk from artist Phil Hansen, who developed a tremor in his hand, meaning he could no longer create the pointillist drawings that had defined his art to that point. In this story of how he came to “embrace the shake,” he poignantly captures the way that what at first seems like “the ultimate limitation” can sometimes turn out “to be the ultimate liberation.”

What limitations have you embraced and found liberating?


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 d.school 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.

The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints

3 Dec

A constraint that every idea has to be made of plastic during an ideation session gave me new ways to channel my passion for action into academic writing.

I had the privilege of co-teaching our RAD workshop to a small group of students with design experience on September 24, 2011. Because it was a small group, the RAD team joined some of the sections. I joined the Ideation and Prototyping sections and was in for a wild ride. My How Might We (HMW) statement was: “How might I channel my passion for action into academic writing?” For the first 2 minutes, we brainstormed without any constraints, and we came up with some pretty amazing ideas like “prototype paragraphs,” “write a poem about your paper,” “dictate while running and capture your words with a sound to text machine,” and “use a jigsaw puzzle or building blocks to represent your paper in simpler terms.”

Then we imposed a crazy constraint which we had agreed to BEFORE the rest of my team knew what my HMW was: every idea has to be made of plastic!!! As we continued ideating in between loud bursts of laughter, I continued to scribble ideas furiously until we ran out of time and my whiteboard was FULL!!! Some of the hilarious ideas we came up with were: “write out your paragraphs on reused plastic bags,” “spend time in a large bin with plastic waste until you feel motivated to write,” and this gem: “fill a room with plastic balls, each with an idea or word that will stimulate better writing” (at which point Amanda couldn’t resist reminding me of this darling cartoon:  http://xkcd.com/150/ ). ❤

After just 4 minutes of ideation, I was overwhelmed and energized with more than 30 ideas. I picked five and began to think about how to prototype them, but two ideas stood out immediately: the poem idea (I’ve been writing amateur poetry for 20 years) and the room full of plastic balls idea. I grabbed some prototyping supplies: a coffee cup, some hard plastic netting, tape, and scissors. I cut the netting into a circle and cut a door into it, then stuck it onto the cup’s mouth. I wrote every idea from the whiteboard on a separate small post-it and scrunched it up, then put it in the cup. As a finishing touch, I placed a ladybug sticker on the netting door as a lucky doorknob J. Now I had a concrete toolkit I could consult each time I needed inspiration to write: just shake the cup, open the “door” and grab an idea to apply to my writing!

I then grabbed some paper and in about 2 minutes, wrote out a 2-page poem about the 30-page manuscript I am currently revising. I tested the prototype out on my colleagues and they said they understood exactly what my research was about, and inspired me to think of other creative ways to communicate my research such as slide shows with pictures of my subjects, and a screenplay. I study how to motivate people to use less energy, and the manuscript reports a randomized controlled trial in which we focused on specific behaviors like eating less meat, avoiding clothes dryer use, and driving less, all of which can reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions significantly and quickly compared to policy or technology approaches. Here’s the end of the poem:

we need not go to hell

in a handbasket

if we act quickly


so skip the hamburger

for a spinach salad

skip the drive

for a scenic walk or ride


when you need to fly

and if you launder

which we all do

please hang dry!

Through the ideation and prototyping phases, I was able to resurrect my passion for my least favorite part of being a grad student: academic writing. I remain indebted to my Ideation team, the RAD team, and to design process for its amazing powers!!