Made by Laura Richardson: Four Easy Tools to Up Your Innovation Game.

an argomade series

If you’ve never imagined dozens of alternate uses for bubbles or been inspired by an Etch-a-Sketch to develop a new nanotechnology, you’ll enjoy peering into the mind of Creative Director Laura Seargeant Richardson, known for her unique design philosophy she calls “playing with possibilities.”

Laura believes that play is not just beneficial, but essential to good design and has written and spoken extensively on the subject, even developing a Periodic Table of Play to help foster creativity in children.

A veteran of frogdesign and a crucial member of the argodesign team, Laura systematically uses fun and ingenuity to deliver wildly delightful solutions, holding that “play is the greatest natural resource in a creative economy.”

Read on to learn how to tap into that natural resource and adopt a “play possible” mindset to access your most innovative design solutions.

What inspired your “playing with possibilities” design philosophy?

I think we are all born designers, but my way of seeing the world really found its footing in childhood creativity. I received gifts from both my parents that have shaped the creative I am today.

My mother was a school teacher and she saw with a “child’s eye.” She was always encouraging me to experiment — a catalyst for my creativity. In my school’s gifted and talented program, I relished each assignment as an opportunity to turn 2D into 3D, to do something different than everyone else. It was a thrill to embrace all the possibilities and express myself creatively. I found that if I broke the rules and played outside the lines I was rewarded for it: I got A’s for ingenuity rather than my intelligence. Ironically, I didn’t do well on multiple choice tests and the SAT because I believed more than one right answer was possible. To this day, I’m still training my mind to see the unexpected.

My father was a civil engineer with diverse interests, one of which was metal detecting. We would spend Sundays foraging for civil war buttons on old farms or visiting antique stores. He was always finding ways to make extra money, from recycling aluminum cans to creating a side company that recycles and repairs wooden pallets. He saw things differently; he could see not just the object but its potential. I inherited this and my entrepreneurial spirit from him. Combined with my innate ingenuity that was positively affirmed throughout my upbringing, it was only natural that playing with possibilities became my modus operandi, and it continues to serve as a mantra for me, both personally and professionally.

It helps me find the hole in the whole — the quirk, or the one idea that no one else has tried before. I directly attribute how I see the world, how I play with the world and how much effort I give to my current success. I have defined my life by playing with possibilities.

You like to say that the first step to playing with possibilities is “seeing yourself see.” How does one begin to do that and where does it lead?

I live in a mode of discovery. And while in many ways that comes naturally to me, it is also a practiced discipline — and one that I strive to share with clients and colleagues in order to surface delightful (and often unexpected) solutions. I love making people active participants in the discovery of answers to questions they never thought to ask — acting as not just a problem solver, but an opportunity finder. I borrow from Beau Lotto, who once said, “It starts first with seeing yourself see.” Once we see ourselves see, we can start to look at things from a different perspective. The ability to look at something through infinite pairs of eyes allows us to be more adaptive, more flexible, more creative and more innovative. After all, innovation ultimately stems from seeing things in a different way.

I bring these many sets of eyes to all my work and to answer each question I’m presented. It’s what allows me to play with several possibilities. For example, my colleagues and I once wondered, “How could we make emotion tangible in the design process?” So I spent 15 years learning and making and trying to answer this. It led to translating Kansei (a Japanese word that loosely means “feeling”) engineering to digital products, to frog design’s Emotion Engine concept (below), to a concept for medical ID that leveraged two conflicting emotions to brainstorm new ideas, thought leadership on designing using emotion, and to a customer experience strategy that includes the 12 Emotional Values that brands should use to both brainstorm and measure the value of their touch points across the customer journey. This result is deceptively simple - it brought about deep insights into the implications of a brand’s emotional gestalt and how that is experienced by its customers.

The Emotion Engine, from frogdesign

Imagine the potential for possibilities I felt when I learned of synesthesia, which means “joined senses” and can cause a person to experience a song not just aurally, but visually, in bursts of color, or to associate each day of the week with a certain shade! I wanted to explore its implications for design thinking. This led to a dedicated blog on the intersection of synesthesia and design, a conceptual phone contact list as a colored aura (whereby you would associate a person in your phone with a certain color), a Pecha Kucha presentation in which participants experienced the “heartbeat of chocolate,” and a scent alphabet, to name a few.

You just said “scent alphabet.” So let’s talk about that.

Ok, join me in a simple experiment. I want you to imagine seeing the letter A in your mind. Now, imagine feeling the letter A in your hand. And then imagine hearing the sound of A. Finally, I want you to smell A. Most people tell me they can’t. Why don’t we have a scent alphabet when we use every other sense to dimensionalize our language?

There is actually every reason to add scent. First, humans have the unique ability of never forgetting a scent. Second, our alphabet is entirely manmade. It’s a construct that can be built upon and changed. If we could smell letters, would we be better at spelling? Would we remember more? Would we associate names with unique scent signatures? Would the vision impaired have another way to communicate?

The real power in this is the recognition that anything man-made, including laws, religion, objects and processes, can be changed if we desire a new reality to exist. I don’t want to accept things just as they are, I want to push boundaries. Playing with possibilities is a passion for forward thinking as much as it is a passion for helping others and improving our world. It’s a life without limits.

A page from my sketchbook. I think in mind maps.

Explain how your “life without limits” mentality underlies and enhances your work as a designer and creative director. Can other designers learn to live life without limits?

I see life as a playground, not as immutable or fixed, but something we can play with and change. I call this mindset “play possible.”

I also firmly believe that play is essential to applied creativity, so I practice the rigorous play required to perform my job well — in fact I have cultivated more than 50 play provocations, or ways I can foster innovation. I’m glad to share a few tools that might be helpful to others.

INNOVATION TOOL #1: The first is how I observe. When we learn to observe the world, we develop four powers: knowing how to look (I call this the looking lens), knowing what to look for (what has a vocabulary becomes visible to us), harnessing our ability to focus, and seeing the essence of things in an instant. Observing is an acquired skill. Karl Von Frisch won a Nobel Prize in 1973 by decoding the dance language of bees. This is a man who observed bees for years and, through dedicated and long term observations, determined bees communicate with other bees by “dancing” the location of honey. Professionally, I assign my teams a “looking lens” when we research a client’s project. The lenses could be behavior, objects, process, environment, moments of minutiae, and movement. Not only does this focus our observations, but fosters different points of view crucial to innovation.

INNOVATION TOOL #2: Another favorite is the idea of transformation. When we purposefully alter the character or form of something, we gain the power of a more intimate understanding through variation, which triggers new connections. I once interviewed Charles Sweeney, a professor at Minnesota State, who was attempting to visually see cancer markers in children’s chemical urinalysis. Frustrated by his inability, he transformed the analysis into a song. He found that he could hear what his eyes could not see. I believe the “sounds” of cancer became apparent because while we can only visually scan one line at a time, we can hear 57 unique instruments at once. More and more I believe we will need to transform data into various sensory formats to interpret the complexity that surrounds us.

INNOVATION TOOL #3: A third I’ll mention is analogy — which might be my favorite. When we play with analogy, we are finding the commonality between two often unrelated things. When we borrow a trait from one source to apply to a second, we increase our capacity for creative problem solving. Scientific American published a fascinating article that discussed four scientific breakthroughs inspired by children’s toys. One of the scientists was Jeremy Levy, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, who used the analogy of an Etch-a-Sketch to create a nanoscale transistor.

I personally use physical and digital games and concepts like biomimicry to widen my range of analogies to draw upon. For example, Relevant Play created a type of technology-enabled play-doh using an infrared dye only seen by computer vision. I met the inventor and was provided a demonstration at a play conference. Two years later at argodesign, we had a healthcare client that wanted to create a proprietary liquid used in DNA analysis. We suggested an invisible infrared dye that would only work with their software, which was entirely inspired by Relevant Play’s play-doh. In this way, my play is applied. In other words, my goal is to bring greater innovation to my clients by playing with what’s possible.

INNOVATION TOOL #4: Finally, I’ll discuss change: that is, changing context to generate new ideas. I was on a panel at the 2009 Toycon conference and was asked, “How can you innovate bubbles?” (I found out later this audience member was the CEO of a well-known toy company.) Without hesitation, I simply changed the context, applying bubbles to every possible category. In the kitchen? Add a dash of spice with bubbles. Mosquito repellant? Citronella scented bubbles. The zoo? Relieve boredom for lions with meat-scented bubbles. Religious? Holy water bubbles spreading peace. The yard? Seed bubbles for flowers. I call this ability to to think across categories in order to apply solutions the Kaleidoscope Mind.

Are there ways beyond the tools you’ve just described that we can all learn to play with possibilities?

I’m currently working on a deck of cards to help others make “play possible,” because true innovation lies in openness to opportunity. It’s about adding more colored glass to our Kaleidoscope Minds so we can create new innovation patterns. These cards will be a deeper dive and extension of my thoughts on the secrets of playtime that foster creative kids and the Periodic Table of Play. While the first set of cards will focus on parents and schools to raise a generation of change-makers, my hope is to create a set for innovators as well as a special set for healthcare, an area which has my heart.

A few working examples of the Play Possible card deck

What else are you obsessing over presently?

Every two years or so, I choose a new “pigeon foot.” It is rumored that Pablo Picasso spent two years, at his father’s request, learning how to draw a pigeon’s foot. With that focus and attention to detail he later said that he could, “see the history of lines, even of nudes.” In other words, the gestalt of art.

My current pigeon foot is painting. I’ve been painting 2x2 portraits, but I have my mind set on recreating colored honeycombs constructed by bees that use the sugar from discarded M&Ms. I’m wondering if I will include actual honey or wax somehow in the painting. I’m definitely into pushing boundaries in whatever medium with which I choose to play. I like to think of myself as an “idea artist.”

What sets design apart from other professions?

I think designers see the world from an unusual lens. We are future focused, but deeply concerned about current human and environmental needs. We think both short term and long term, in minute detail and at scale. We ask for forgiveness rather than permission. We are the rebels with a cause. We are passion with purpose. But, most importantly, we have the tools to make change.


Next, we’ll talk to interaction and experience designer Desmond Connolly, our backgammon-playing punk rocker who thrives on the “puzzle solving” aspect of this industry.


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