What George Costanza can teach us about design

In our Design Week Portland brainstorm event last week, we shared a brainstorming method called the “Costanza Method” (á la George Costanza from Seinfeld). Unlike traditional brainstorms, where you seek to find solutions to a problem, the idea behind this brainstorm technique is to instead seek ways to prevent your solution from happening.

Is budget your limiting factor for a project? Let’s try to blow trillions of dollars! Trying to create inclusive communities? Let’s try to exclude everyone. Though it yields silly or off-the-wall results at first, the exercise has a powerful effect on your approach: it separates your team from the circumstance and seriousness of the problem.

Active pursuit of the opposite begs you to question the relevance of the information given to you — it forces you to not assume that the criteria provided to you is the defining factor. Most importantly, it encourages you tochallenge the notion of what you know.

What we know can be one of the largest hindering forces when approaching a creative problem. We tend to quickly dismiss suggestions we’ve considered or methods we’ve already tried. What we know to be truth quickly becomes absolute gospel: a foregone conclusion to our methodology.

Psychologically, as an agency with ample email expertise, we tend to enter brainstorms or creative situations equipped with our prior experience. We’re quick to say what empirically works and doesn’t work based on what we’ve seen to be true in past email builds, successful or unsuccessful results of numerous tests.

WE COSTANZA’D THIS BRAINSTORM.

Taking the Costanza approach isn’t limited to brainstorming alone. With Taco Bell, one of our largest accounts, we collaborate with their team to drive digital innovation through their marketing efforts; in particular, email campaigns. I think many email experts would agree that email as a channel tends to be constrictive and slow to adapt to evolving web technologies. Creating truly new, innovative experiences (that are stable across email clients) is not an easy feat. Best case scenario: most email marketing efforts go solidly for what works.

For our March Taco Bell campaign, our concept was to show the journey of three individuals: one who ate Taco Bell Breakfast, one who skipped breakfast, and one who ate bland breakfast. We decided that interactive scrolling would give us the best user experience. But none of us had ever seen a stable scrolling email experience.

Instead of entering our brainstorm citing why scrolling doesn’t work in email, we assumed that it was possible. Instead of approaching the problem with “Let’s eliminate everything that is impossible” (which is the general parlance of our email brainstorms), we started with “How can we make this possible?”

It opened our eyes to leveraging divs, which are typically an email faux pas. It opened the doors to CSS positioning with email (another email no-no). [Nerd out on how we created our March Email campaign at the Litmus Community Blog by our Senior Developer Heidi Olsen.]

WE’RE VERY PROUD OF THE END RESULT.

For me, as a designer, I’m most proud of our team’s ability to trust one another and navigate uncharted territory together. We didn’t allow what we know to prevent us from the possibility of creating something beyond what we know — a necessary premise of innovation.

Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
 If I could add a third sentence, I’d say, “Design is about how we work.”

As designers, one of our roles is leading our teams into uncharted territories equipped not with knowledge, but with design thinking. Because what defines a designer isn’t a mastery of programs, colors, and style (though those things matter), but instead a continual quest to think differently.


Originally published at eroi.com.