Know the rules

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series by design thought leader Stefan Mumaw from his HOW Design presentation, “Think Like a Villain: A Creative’s Guide to Winning Through Villainy.”

“If you have a gun, you can rob a bank. If you have a bank, you can rob anyone.” — Black Mask

It’s the 60s. NASA is testing people to determine if they have the right stuff to survive in the unpredictability of space travel. What tests do you give them? Physical stamina tests, of course. But what about their mental capacity? Anything can (and did) happen when you launch people out of the earth’s atmosphere. How do you gauge their ability to think quickly and creatively when it does?

Duncker’s Candle Problem

Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker invented a simple creativity test, although that wasn’t his original intent. He would give participants three things: a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches. Then he would instruct participants to affix the candle to the wall in such a way that when lit, wax wouldn’t drip on the floor.

He was testing something called functional fixedness, a type of cognitive bias that describes the tendency to see objects for only their designed purpose, meaning that you get hung up on what something is and fail to see what it could be. He wanted participants not to see a box of tacks, but rather, a box and tacks. He wanted to see which participants dumped the tacks out of the box, tacked the box to the wall, then put the candle in the box.

He wanted to see which participants were indiscriminately bound by the rules and which knew them well enough to circumvent them because this bias limited their ability to be creative in life-and-death situations, and the same bias limits your ability to see novel solutions to problems.

How would you define cheating? Technically, cheating is indiscriminately ignoring the rules, known or not, in pursuit of the goal. Basically, cheating is breaking the rules. We could take a similar approach to the definition of creativity, as well. If cheating is breaking the rules, creativity is circumventing them. It’s knowing the rules so well, you know how you can get what you want in ways the indiscriminate rule followers didn’t see coming.

In 2000, ad agencies Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Arnold Worldwide were tapped to lead the creative charge on an anti-smoking campaign aimed toward teens. The Legacy Foundation’s Truth campaign was born, introducing PSA messaging and stunts that targeted teens by changing the traditional way to achieve the goal.

Up until this time, “Just Say No” was the most prevalent messaging, an ineffective approach when you consider the psychology and rebelliousness of the audience. Both agencies understood convincing teens to stop smoking was the goal, so they changed the way they got there.

Instead of creative designed to convince teens to stop smoking, they changed the narrative to one of manipulation: “Big Tobacco is manipulating you; they’re tricking you into smoking to line their pockets.” This played directly into the teen’s rebellious nature instead of against it. If they could convince teens to stop supporting Big Tobacco, they would stop smoking as an act of defiance. Smoking would be caught in the middle.

Did it work? The campaign has been credited with reducing teen smoking from 23 percent when the campaign launched to just 8 percent today.

Most successful villains are cunningly intelligent. They research. They plan. They know every path in and every path out. They know the rules better than anyone.

Most successful villains are cunningly intelligent. They research. They plan. They know every path in and every path out. They know the rules better than anyone. And so should you. It’s easy to design in a vacuum; it’s hard to step away from your desk and ask the tough questions. If you want a seat at the table, offer value when you get there. Know what restrictions exist and why.

When kids create games, the first thing they look for are loopholes in the rules. They don’t just want to win, they want to win their way. Villains do as well. It’s not enough to get what they want—the world has to recognize their brilliance along the way. If you’re working with strict brand standards or nitpicky bosses, know them inside and out. Not so you can do what they say you can do, but so you can do what they didn’t say you couldn’t do. There’s always a loophole. Find it and exploit it.

Burger King wants you to know all about the Whopper, but it only has a 15-second TV commercial to tell you. That’s not enough time. But nobody said they couldn’t get Google Home to do it for them. So in that 15-second TV commercial, a Burger King employee, holding a Whopper, says, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?” And everyone who has a Google Home device within earshot of the TV immediately gets the Wikipedia entry for a Burger King Whopper read back to them. That devious, 15-second TV spot just expanded for free.

So? What rules are you indiscriminately following on the projects you are working on currently? And which rules are you implying exist without ever challenging them? Villains are cunning because they’re diligent enough to understand the rules everyone else blindly follows. When you know the rules, you begin to see the path through them. Some of the most creative solutions we’ve ever seen come from villainous creatives hellbent on challenging every convention the rest of the world accepts.

Stay tuned for our last episode: “Live In The Leading.”