Think Like a Villain

“Why are you crafting what you are crafting? Each of the things you create has a purpose, something it is designed to do.

Villains are some of the most creative characters in stories because they pursue a uniquely defined goal and are willing to circumvent the rules to achieve it. Creatives can learn to find previously hidden ideas by taking this same villainous approach.

By understanding how to break problems down to reveal their true nature, knowing the rules so well that one can see the spaces between the rules, and working the periphery of a subject as much as the subject itself, creatives of all trades will learn that thinking like a villain can not only lead to creative insight, it’ll produce a repeatable process.

In this three-part series, we’ll explore how we can take the best practices of a story’s best villains and apply them to our creative work. First up, let’s talk about goals.

Know your goal
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power.” — Tony Montana, from the movie “Scarface”

Al Pacino’s villainous turn as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film “Scarface” could easily be summed up as the stereotypical bad guy in the unlawful pursuit of money. But when you dig deeper, Tony wasn’t obsessed with money; he was obsessed with power and respect. In his mind, there was one way to get the power and respect he felt he deserved, and that was through flagrant wealth.

The thing he was making wasn’t the goal. It was just the way to get there.

You create things. It could be designing a website, writing a headline, illustrating a logo, building an app, filming a video. Naturally, you want that thing to be amazing; you want it to be both relevant and novel. So you focus on the thing intently. You research the most effective techniques, processes and production methods. You do what you were born to do: you craft.

Why are you crafting what you are crafting? Each of the things you create has a purpose, something it is designed to do. Your goal isn’t to create a thing; it’s to change a behavior, or reveal a need or share an emotion.

The thing you’re making is not the goal. It’s just the way to get there.

Villains always start with a goal, something they want that they don’t or can’t have. And since they can’t get it through traditional means (or fast enough for their taste), they create an alternative path. The world only sees the path and then assumes the destination; they rarely see the ultimate goal. And that’s the villain’s power: strategic misdirection. It can be your power, too.

Understanding why turns you from maker to creator. Makers are people who start with a thing they want to make and expertly craft it to their own exacting standards. Creators, on the other hand, start with a goal they want to achieve and craft things that achieve that goal. Knowing the difference between a thing’s purpose and the need that thing is designed to fill helps make that transition possible.

Purpose versus Need
Have you ever noticed that one of the key indicators that a character in a story is a villain is that they stop caring about the consequences of their actions? If you no longer have regard for human life, you can achieve almost any material goal, especially if the human life you disregard is your own. Caring is a natural response to human relationships. This goes for brands as well.

The success of a brand is often attached to its ability to create relationships between itself and its audience. Brands want relationships with people. People want relationships with people. Hence the dilemma. A brand’s purpose doesn’t always meet a person’s need.

Kodak is best known for producing film, some would say the best in the world, but their brand architecture doesn’t state their purpose as “producing the best film in the world.” It says that they manufacture immortality. Why? Because people don’t want film; they want the immortality of a moment to last forever. Film is just the medium that accomplishes that goal.

Every piece of communication you create has a purpose. In most cases, it’s to communicate something that the brand wants to say. But it also satisfies a human need. One of the greatest values the creative can be to a brand is to act as the translator between the purpose and the need. This is done by asking the great philosophical question of our time:


Why does a person need to know about this product or service? We know why the brand wants them to know, but why would the person want to know? What inherent, human need does it fulfill? These aren’t easy translations but they answer the question of why.

What you must establish is the basic, human need that the brand, product, or service satisfies. It’s not about the product or service—it’s about the person that the product or service is serving. This is a human-up approach instead of a brand-down, and it’s a diabolically creative plan of attack.


There’s a nefarious wickedary to understanding the real need that your creative is designed to solve. It’s like knowing a secret and acting on it in the shadows, producing solutions that almost magically hit the nail on the head over and over again. When you know the difference between the purpose and the need, and then understand that need on the most human level, you quickly realize that the thing you’re creating isn’t the goal. It’s just the way to get there.

Stefan Mumaw is a designer, author, thought leader and creative thinker extraordinaire. As director of creative strategy for Hint, Mumaw is helping lead the firm in new directions. The author of six books, including “Creative Boot Camp,” a 30-day crash course on creativity, Mumaw also is a highly sought after national speaker on creativity and the creative process.