Why play is essential to design thinking

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . 
- Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to more innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts on my blog detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaboration; Using improv games for brainstorming and embracing failure; Using improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute for Play.

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . . The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
- Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play, 2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.
- Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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Originally published on Design Thinking for Museums, a resource of best practices and case studies for applying human-centered design in museums and mission-driven organizations.

Dana Mitroff Silvers is a design thinking facilitator and digital experience strategist with experience launching innovative products and services in organizations ranging from museums to educational technology startups. She runs a San Francisco Bay Area-based consulting practice, Designing Insights.

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