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What Does It Mean To Be Playful?

Monday, May 14th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Most designers acknowledge that having a sense of playfulness is important to their work. But what does it mean, and why does it work? The word itself is light; it implies a lack of care for repercussions, outcomes, or intent. There’s a sense of doing something as an end in itself – of trying things for the sake of trying them, or simply to see what happens. For me, play means being “light-hearted”: taking things less seriously, re-casting things from different, unexpected, or purposefully bizarre perspectives, or teasing an idea, literally making fun of an idea as it develops.

When we’re ideating at Austin Center for Design, we typically push ideas to the point of absurdity (and often, well beyond that point). For example, when we were talking through and planning the conference we just announced, we were discussing ways to differentiate the content, the activities, and the various designed parts of the event. Someone suggested using color, and for a while, we rolled with the idea of having literally everything at the space a certain color. What if the seats, speakers, food, brochures, microphone stands, and signage were all pink? What about the floor, ceilings, and walls? What if we made it a requirement to enter – you had to be dressed all in pink? When you start pushing an idea to the edge of appropriateness, you end up in some funny places. I can picture an all-pink conference; I don’t know why we would want to do that, but part of a playful stance is that it’s OK to consider ideas without really knowing where they’ll go. The discussion of pink led, somehow, to a conversation around decor and actors, and for a few minutes, we told stories of what the event would be like if there were lots and lots of mimes situated around the space. Why? I’m not sure. And I think that’s the point – play is about not being sure.

A technique I like to use, both with students and professionals, is insight combination: a form of provocation that forces unique combinations of ideas. For example, consider how you might take these three ideas, and smush them together into a new idea:

Idea one: A design conference
Idea two: People enjoy things that are visually unexpected
Idea three: The lifecycle of plants

What if, during the conference, there was an opportunity to see the facial expressions of the audience from the previous talk on fast-forward?

What if, during a cocktail party, there was a viral form of “germination” of ideas, that spread through the use of brightly-color, pollen-like pods?

What if, during a presenter’s talk, something rippled through the crowd in a way that a bee, a ladybug, or a butterfly might fly?

What if hundreds of butterflies were unleashed in the auditorium during the conference?

We could continue to push “What if” statements for as long as we have time and imagination: there are an infinite number of ways to push these ideas together into new ideas. Each prompt, such as “lifecycle of plants”, brings to mind interactions, movements, relationships, and so on. A plant blossoms. Flowers have vivid colors. Seeds grow. They push the dirt aside when they come out of the ground. Sunshine hits green leaves. Ladybugs fly around. Any of these ideas can be artificially embedded in an existing context to produce new and exciting ideas.

Of course, “new and exciting” is really different than “cost-effective”, “appropriate”, or “lucrative”: there’s a huge chasm between something new, and something that will sell. To be playful means avoiding, at least temporarily, a focus on the external goal of revenue (or, really, any external goal at all). It’s about setting up artificial constraints around an idea space, and then, within that space, seeing what happens.

I’ve found that corporate cultures that embrace meetings and consensus, that have a constant and driving emphasis on quarterly profits, that have compensation related to optimization and streamlining, and that relentlessly question the purpose of every action are not playful. Employees have a constant sense of an external goal, and so all activities are (sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly) judged against their relevant to that external goal. In many publically traded companies, employees will have a ticker of the stock price of their own company on the screen of their computer at all time. This serves as a constant reminder: are your activities, right now, contributing to the bottom line?

I can’t tell you the value of dreaming about colors at a conference, or mimes, or flowers, and what’s more, I won’t be able to tell you the value of those ideas after the conference is over. We aren’t going all-pink; does that mean that the twenty minutes we spent talking about pink colored cocktails was not a good use of time? Was it “wasted time”? I don’t think so. I think ideas like this are bridge ideas: the push the design boundaries and constraints further, expanding the realm of potential and giving a designer a broader palette of pieces and parts to work with.

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