Serious Play: Design is an Act of Inquiry

“Without play, there is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers.” -Paul Rand: The Play Instinct, 1991

Design is an act of inquiry.

Matt Kahn, one of my professors at Stanford University, used to say “Design is the art form that is incomplete until it is engaged.” A book by John Thackara called In the Bubble teaches us to “design in the world, not on the world.” These lines have resonated with me throughout my journey in Design. Design is a process, a toolset, and a way of thinking whose confluence is the vehicle for your craft to realize its purpose.

As Designers, we aim to produce interventions that lead to behavior change. It’s behavior change that leads to impact through your work. Your impact is the measure of your strength as a Designer. James Carse, author of one of my favorite books Finite and Infinite Games, writes “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” I believe the mindset of designing for inquiry and intervention is present among the best Engineers, Scientists, Journalists, Marketers, Salespeople, and Entrepreneurs let alone people with the word “Designer” on their calling card.

Design for inquiry focuses on impact through outcomes. Often, it feels like we Designers are focused on output and outcomes, expecting that impact will inevitably follow. Getting to impact requires an iterative approach — a cycle between generative and reductive thinking — engaging your active curiosity through play with others. Picasso said “art is the lie that reveals the truth.” Through our interventions, we create inquiry that tests the status quo.