30 min readJan 10, 2018
Isamu Noguchi: Playscapes (2016)

Elements of play are evident within the design process and I see these elements of creative thinking as a maturation of play. The benefits are in an agile and flexible approach that can enhance the analysis and synthesis elements of problem solving which are more relevant than ever in the increasingly complex and globalised economic, cultural and societal networks we live in today.

To come to this conclusion I firstly analysed the historical and contemporary thinking around play and design along with their intertwined relationship. Further to this I have focused on how playfulness is ingrained into the very fabric of human existence and can be utilised to improve designers creative proficiency. This is focused on the current context within which designers are operating and how a playful tool kit is valuable asset.

Following on from my analysis I reviewed the theoretical against three contemporary practices. Conducting conversations with three creatives who are leaders in their respective fields, Jude Pullen, Tim Rundle and Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad. By comparing and contrasting their reinforces the notion that elements of play are valuable in the design process.


The defining elements of play and design have evolved throughout history, encompassing broad subject areas so I have analysed their precedence to the subject matter at hand.

Johan huizinga was a Dutch Historian whose definition of play in ‘Homo Ludens’ is widly referenced by contemporary thinkers on play theory. Huizinga states that not only that “play is older than culture” Huizinga, J (1955, p1) but in fact was the creator of culture. Showing that the value of play has been the interest of many great thinkers, seconded when he quotes Plato;

“man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him” Huizinga, J (1955, p18)

In 2001 Roger Callios, an award winning and highly cited sociologist, refined Huizinga’s definition of play with categories and introduced a spectrum to the notion of play from paidia, uncontrolled, to ludus, controlled, play.

More recently, 2014, Scott G. Eberle, Phd, the editor of the American Journal of Play, wrote an article ‘the elements of play’, within which he summarises play as,

“ an ancient, voluntary, ‘emergent’ process driven by pleasure that yet strengthens our muscles, instructs our social skills, tempers and deepens our positive emotions, and enables a state of balance that leaves us poised to play some more.” (Eberle, S. 2014 p.231)

In this same article Eberle “boils the lists down [from previous definitions], and five basic qualities emerge” (Eberle, S. 2014 p.231)



Outside the ordinary.


Focused by rules.

Whilst Eberle’s definition is the most concise he still includes the element of “purposeless”, which is also included in Huizinga’s and Callios’. These elements would debunk the idea that design could ever be play, as when used within the design process it has a purpose. However Brown, S (2008) demonstrates from an evolutionary perspective that free play is not purposeless but actually has had a significant impact on the success of our species, our neoteny, where we play into late adulthood gives us a creative advantage, “Historically in terms of evolution, developmentally in terms of growing up and immediately in terms of flexible interaction with our environment” Power, P (2011 p. 297)

One area where there is a general consensus around play is that “the contrast between play & seriousness is always fluid” (Huizinga, J . 1955). Callios defines it as a linear scale, where as Eberle demonstrates the complex nature of play and it’s spiralling scales of elements. Defining it as complex in nature, being fluid and emergent, rather than binary, experience. (See Figure 1)

Fig 1 :(Eberle, S. 2014)

Over the years, leading minds have set out to define play and they all summarise with a list of its characteristics, but no definitive answer. This intangibility is due to its experiential qualities. Whilst play resists a concrete definition, for the purposes of analysis within the deign process the key elements can be summarised as below.


Autoletic, within itself


Governed by rules


To follow on from these elements there are two key point to keep in mind, firstly the dynamic mixing of elements that combine to create it’s emergent qualities. Secondly is the spectrum between the free uncontrolled play and competitive controlled play. As It is the “self controlled and self directed” (Gray, P. 2010) that we will see facilitates the freeing activity that promotes a proficiency within the design process.


The design process is another concept that eludes a definition and the sheer volume of books written about it can be seen by searching online resources.

Amazon UK: 2,500k results

Google books: 662,000 results,

Google scholar: 1.4 million results

(Searches conducted 9th May 2017)

One factor in generating the tomes of research is due to the design processes evolution into design/creative thinking and its transferability to other disciplines. This logical progression can be seen if we consider that the design process has long been engrained into everyday life, Formally beginning with the inventor and craftspersons embodying the process as part of their profession, which then became a specialisation with the industrial revolution’s division of labour. From here, design’s approach to solving problems and improving things didn’t stop in terms of it’s physical and tangible outcomes, it became interested in the processes and systems used to “give form and order to the amenities of life” Potter, N. (1980, p13). This creative problem solving is now being applied by industry leaders in a myriad of forms. For example, Mike Parker and Jonathan Ive began as a designers and are now ‘Chiefs’ within their respective companies.

Another aspect of the design process, like play, is that it is emergent. You can approach a problem from varying points within the process and repeat the steps until a desired outcome is reached, Eberle’s diagram above is a good representation. Which ever approach designers use there are two significant actions, analysis and synthesis, both of which contain actions that are divergent and convergent. What we are interested in is how we can gain greater insight and increase proficiency within these cycles.


Playfulness gave humanity the tools to be adaptive and resilient, to be creative. From the analysis of the individual components of the design processes a correlation can be drawn between the two subjects at hand. Dattner’s observation that “adult creative expression resembles children’s play” Dattner, R. (1969. p. 9) is built upon through the studies of Brown and Gray, showing play as a tool for creative problem solving. Creativity is defined as the “use of imagination to come up with original ideas” (Oxford University Press, 2017) and the quality of the creative outcomes can be seen as the novelty and usefulness of an idea and it is the former where a playful approach can be useful to the designer.

If play is to be seen as a tool to be used within the design process then in what forms does it appear? Brown, T. (2008) suggests “It’s probably in the divergent mode that we most need playfulness”, where divergent thinking is seen as “fluency, flexibility, and originality [of ideas]” (Davis, M. 2008). A successful manifestation of a playful approach would increase these outcomes, however being able to generate lots of ideas doesn’t guarantee success. The ability to disseminate quality is a separate skill, this is where varied critical perspectives are required.

Using playful tools a designer can leverage an alternative critical perspective on the issues at hand. One of the first steps to gaining a deeper understand of a brief is by defining the elements. This can be done by looking at definitions and etymology of the language used but also by exploring word play, idioms are a great example of ingenuity within languages and provide alternative perspectives.

Another example is seen when, considering that all design problems are human centred to some extent, it is critical for designers to put themselves in the shoes of the client/user. Gray, P. (2014) demonstrates that play gives us these empathetic tools and Eberle, S. (2014) shows it “deliberately rearranges our relationships and … enhances our social wit”. If increased sociability and empathy are seen to give the designer a better understanding, then role play would be the epitome of this and an indispensable part of the tool kit.

Ham, D. (2016) gives examples of design tools that use play structures, notably throughout his review he focuses on the divergent synthesis stage of the process which raises the question ‘can, during the analysis stage, a playful activity broaden the horizons, open up conversations and allow greater insight?’. With the LEGO Serious play methodology (LEGO 2010) the physical modelling of systems with LEGO bricks enables people to visualise issues. Through this physical abstraction of the issue it gives tangibility and allows for an interpretation that can be used as a catalyst for discussion and new insights. It is these ‘outside the ordinary’ elements of play that give valuable critical perspectives and there are other tools such as using juxtaposition & collage techniques in mood boards and rapid sketch modelling that facilitate an enhanced role play.

Power describes how “playfulness is concerned with process, not product, and, in this respect, it differs from but is supportive of creativity, which is normally goal orientated and focused on outcomes.“ (Power, P. 2016 p314) However the design process is an exploitative journey to a solution and to define goals at the beginning can be detrimental. Some of the greatest creativity manifested itself from free undirected experimentation, or play. “The Eameses are wonderful examples of experimentation. They played with plywood for many years without necessarily having a single goal in mind” (Brown, T. 2008). Therefore it is this being in the moment that design parallels play. As such, “an outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprises, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play” (Callios, R. 2001, p7). It is the uncertain and autotelic elements of playfulness that facilitate the serendipitous or light bulb moments within research and idea generation.

After stages of analysis designers begin to synthesise ideas which can be facilitated by using a “slot machine that they can continue to play until the desired jackpot is seen.“ (Ham, D. 2016 p23) This can be seen in the work of Jamie Hayon (2016) when he brings two disparate words together to inspire new collections of work, “tropical Scandinavian” for example. A more complex example of this uncertainty given by Ham is procedural CAD where an algorithm is used to generate complex forms. Here the designer becomes the games master setting the rules and then playing with the inputs until satisfied, greatly speeding up the generative process for complex outcomes.

Another method of working efficiently within the synthesis stage is seen in Csikszentmihalyi’s exploration of the flow state or “optimal experience”, referenced by Ham when regarding how balancing between “boredom and anxiety” to keep you ‘playing’ and in the creative flow. This raises the question “Can play be exploited to keep focus on a task?”. Another element of the flow state transports us to a world outside the ordinary, where time becomes distorted, and you are fully within the process. Paralleling the elements of freeing and autotelic within playfulness. Huizinga, J. (1955 p8) describes play as “a devotion that passes into rapture”. This pleasurable devotion can be seen in the ‘flow State’ in which divergent thinking facilitates creative ideation. This rapturous experience and its benefits to creativity is linked together by Power, P (2011) who researched psychological and neurological factors and found that

“Apparently playfully networking neurons, tippling dopamine or opioid-based cocktails, connect and communicate more freely and pleasurably, like they were frolicking at some neurofestival”

This playful interpretation summarises the fact that when we are having fun we increase our creative abilities. Fun is not the only element that flow and playful states share, in fact it’s all of them.

Being playful promotes elasticity within the mind and facilitates an agile approach when tackling problems. Therefore an element of play outside the design process and within everyday life keeps the designer fresh and open minded. This perspective on play sees it as a way of life rather than a tool to use within the design process. This can be seen in the life work of creatives around the world, the Eames’ “used experimentation in all aspects of their work, from films to buildings, from games to graphics” (Brown, T. 2008)

In summary, play can be used as a tool within the design process to gain deeper insight and increase proficiency when producing ideas. It is also a tool that allows the designer to gain a critical distance when evaluating the quality and usefulness of ideas. As both play and design are fluid and emergent processes, using play to facilitate design creates a dynamic tool kit that can be applied to all aspects of the design process and beyond. Play isn’t on or off, and this plastic mindset that was once freely available as a child needs to be cultivated in adulthood, hence being playful should be approached as a way of life.

Key to these elements are to be:


Play must be a free voluntary exercise; Within the mind for better free association and enabling an agility to adapt investigations techniques and solutions to different issues

Outside the ordinary, separate:

Be this via the flow states rapturous design ideation. Or a release from the preconceived, perceived and actual ‘rules’ created by political, social or cultural influences. Giving the designer a critical distance from the issues at hand but also from the self is a vital tool.


Uncertainty that gives space for creativity, surprises and serendipity.

Guided by rules:

Controlled play can be seen governed by physical immovable rules, the challenge is to work within these to optimise the outcome. Where as free play may look as if there are no rule but actually they still guide the process, being continually re assessed and modified to suit. The key n is the ability and confidence to challenge, bend and break them.


It’s simple, we are more creative if we are in a positive mind set

Tim Brown the CEO of IDEO, a leading creative consultancy, summarises all of the above when he says “Playfulness helps us get better creative solutions, helps us do our jobs better, and helps us feel better when we do them” (Brown, T. 2008)

Why now?

Why is a playful approach to design relevant today? This question almost seems irrelevant, as a playful approach to solving issues should be a default approach. However there are shifts in the social and global contexts which reinforce the need for this design perspective today.

The first is that the issues we face are becoming ever more complex, Bar-Yam, Y. (1997) plots the birth of complex issues as a shift from the hierarchical structures of our society to the closely networked systems we see today. Within which there is a positive correlation with the complexity of a problem and the “multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity“ (McGrath, R. & Sargut, G. 2011) of elements. This can be seen as a result of the interconnectivity within globalised networks. Identified by McGrath, R. (2011) as the “decreasing cost of computing power” and the”increasing ease of communicating rich content across distances”, thus empowering and engaging more stakeholders.

If we look back to when the notion of a ‘designer’ was concieved in the early 20th century, there has been an developing discourse reguarding the complex problems along side. Conklin, J. Basadur, M. & VanPatter, GK. (2011) reference Rittle, H. & Webber, M. (1973) when redefining this complexity as ‘wicked problems’. By doing so they created a paradigm shift with the approach to a solution. In which they “help stakeholders negotiate shared understanding and shared meaning about the problem and its possible solutions … the objective of the work is coherent action, not final solution” (Conklin, J. Basadur, M. & VanPatter, GK. 2011). Working across inter-disciplinary teams and global networks designers need to be agile in their thinking, adaptable with their processes and have great social skills. This is mirrored by the paradigm shift in the understanding of the design process. Moving from the traditional linear process of input, analysis, synthesis then output. To a more agile cyclical/helical approaches. Within this it is being playful that enables our brains to work within these complex and multifaceted issues.

The increasing speed and ease in accessing knowledge on a global scale is also affecting the rate of change of cultures and global markets. The digital revolution, or fourth industrial revolution, “When compared with previous industrial revolutions … is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace” Schwab, K. (2016). These fast paced market changes require the designer to be able to respond quickly. Here a proficiency within practice can be facilitated by taking a playful approach not just to design but to business as a whole. As well, design and “Play changes through time and place and as culture changes” (Eberle, S. 2014 p230) , the theories and approaches within play give the designer a transferable tool kit that they can apply to new sectors and emerging markets.

Another benefit to understanding and utilising play theory is within the expanding experience market, where predominately millennials value experiential wealth rather than material wealth (Eventbrite, 2014). Taking advantage of playful methods within experiences for events or brands can increase engagement with customers and clients. This side of playfulness can also go beyond the paid experience into the public realm, facilitating an open mindedness and increase engagement within the increasing densities of urban populations around the world.

To review, Play and creativity are inextricably intertwined, their emergent natures give them the ability to be flexible and adaptable tools for applying across a range of needs. With characteristics of:


Autotelic, within itself


Guided by rules


Playfulness and the ability to retain this way of thinking with age has helped humans evolve to be the dominant species and develop the social skills that are critical for collaboration.

These elements are still valuable today in the increasing complexities of contemporary society and diversity of roles the designer works across. They give an ability to think and act freely, gain critical distance and new perspectives. They also allow us to embrace uncertainty with curiosity & excitement and create & challenge the rules. All of which, done with a positive mental attitude (fun,) improve the ability to creatively solve issues and improve the physical/cultural world. Designers already have a lot of playful tools at their disposal. What makes this subject relevant is the ability for them to generate new ones and play with the old that will keep this approach fresh.


Moving from theory to practice it is good to see how contemporary practitioners employ these methods. The three case studies that follow are from leaders in their respective fields and their practices utilise play at differing stages of the design process and across different disciplines, highlighting the breadth and depth of this subject area. These have been chosen due to their initial studies as industrial designers/design engineers, bringing a personal perspective on the original notion of design, while expanding it within their own professional practices to give a verity of critical perspectives.

Jude Pullen

Pullen is a multi-talented award winning product design engineer, he has held senior research and development roles at Dyson and Sugru and currently at LEGO. He contributes to the online hack/maker communities through his website, Youtube channel and, and he has also appeared on the BBC2 program ‘Big Life Fix’

Pullen sees the multitude of design processes as a set of adaptable frameworks where you need the flexibility to find the parts that are appropriate for each project. “The process is there to guide you. It isn’t there to constrain you when you have a great idea or you want to go off on a tangent you can of course break the process” (Pullen, P. 2017). His strength lies in his agility: “I don’t consider myself an expert in one ‘martial art’ [process], I enjoy learning little bits of each.” (Pullen, P. 2017) Pullen sees one of the key abilities is to “expand and contract an idea”, “with experienced you get more strength and courage to expand [an idea] further but contract faster, from a greater breadth.” Within this process, he sees “the more threads you can run, the richer the tapestry”. As a fundamental example of this Pullen relates it to the double diamond process, see fig 2. Pullen’s dynamic approach to the frameworks when designing show his ability to play with the process, freeing himself to be adaptable to new and unfamiliar environments. In many ways, he believes adaptability to be, possibly, a greater asset than simply ‘expert’ knowledge.

Fig 2: Double diamond design process (Design Council, 2015)

Pullen values the sociable side of the design process and sees that this needs to be fostered though playfulness from a young age, commenting on Ken Robinson’s TED talk (Robinson, J. 2006) which has the most views of any talk on the service. As Pullen states, “Really good social/playing kids know how to play with lots of different kids” and once older this social wit “cuts both ways, when you go into a larger company or structure you are proficient in trying to find common ground amongst people who don’t think like you” (Pullen, J. 2017). Pullen also rates this sociability in regard to the effective functioning of creative businesses he has worked in, “the more companies I come into contact with — it’s the teams, not the just individuals that can determine a successful project outcome..“ (Pullen, P. 2017). A final aspect of the benefits of this sociability is it allows Pullen to gain critical perspectives by working with other people, “I deliberately choose people [to collaborate with] who are different [to me] to provoke different ways of thinking.” “Often it requires more effort perhaps because it is using language or a cultural rhythm that I’m not used to — nor them to my background also” (Pullen, P. 2017)

By playing with other people, it gives you a critical perspective on your work, but also helps you negotiate better with other stakeholders, a trait that can be fostered from a young age and is more valuable within our expanding global networks. So playing like children in older age increases our social wit and improves negotiations, but wait, there is a danger here that if there is a cynic then they can be a spoilsport.

“‘Adopting the mindset of a child’ … is a massive over simplification of being playful within the design process … Children have insatiable curiosity and free association, and although children do not create processes per se, the essence of this free thinking, one can take as an adult and cultivate”, (Pullen, P. 2017)

Further to this there are parallels between the way Pullen works, “I really enjoy the state of mind where ‘free association’ is flowing nicely” (Pullen, P. 2017), and Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, within which positivity increases creativity.

Another benefit of playful freedom is, Pullen’s advocation for, 20% time, an ad hoc method employed by Google and others where employees can use 20% of their time to work on projects not related to their primary role (Bock, L. 2015 p135–136). Pullen notes that this period away from a problem allows people to come back to it later and solve it, “I think this is a vital part of a professional’s wellbeing and productivity — as a manager, I saw this start to happen because people took a step back and stopped banging their head against the wall, and then the problem became ‘unstuck’ — we had numerous breakthroughs from applying and releasing pressure, creatively speaking — which is why I started to deeply believe in 20% time, or similar cycles of creativity.”

The benefit of working on a 20% project without the same commercial constraints of a deadline or viability “empowered people to take risks [at Sugru]” (Pullen, J. 2017), also, “a release valve to do something divergent.” This freedom from constraints allows designers to stretch and fuel their creative needs and professional development.

Pullen has a love/hate relationship with uncertainty, referencing the hype cycle, see fig 3, this description of opposing emotional states is representative of the way creative brains are wired (Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2013) and the flexibility of playfulness allows us to break free from each pole. Pullen also comments on the fun element of playfulness stating:

“it is important in play, to inject humour or laugh at the situation. That becomes a part of if you are breaking taboo or or even exploring the deliberate antithesis to understand something from a fresh perspective.” (Pullen, P. 2017)

Fig 3: (Hype-Cycle-General, 2013).

Pullen also cites Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies — a collection of provocative cards to help teams open up creative problems. IDEO have also created similar ‘tools’ to good effect. It seems we often need ‘reminders’ to think in a more child-like (less critical or presumptuous) way.

Pullen discusses the culture around creativity and play within businesses and how it needs to be understood and cultivated from the top. For example, “Lego and Pixar have huge pools of exceptionally talented creative people who are incredible to engage with and should be acknowledged as a playground within big companies, which is an achievement in itself, given the usual critisism of creativity in large companies“ As well as the power of convergence for creativity, large businesses need to provide environments where the elements of play can flourish. “[Catmull’s] Creativity, Inc. talks a lot about leaders in their own field working for a very big company [Pixar], but not constraining their ability, it’s fueling them by removing the [pressure and stress]” However as Pullen points out, “although large companies are at risk of issues like Brand legacy impeding their ability to be disruptive, and conversely, small companies may have more freedom, but can be hindered by the threat of financial turbulence, so it can be hard to fund long-term initiatives which pay off many years later”. So it takes a forward thinking business, large or small, that understands the risks and payoffs to facilitate the creative ‘playgrounds’ that should allow them to be at the forefront of their industry.

Pullen is a prime advocate of the benefits of playfulness in the approach to design and draws many parallels between theory and practice. Highlighting social play and critical perspectives along with the free, flexible and agile approach a playful mindset can foster. He evidences the need for play and the design process to be free, not just in thought association but also from the pressures of deadlines and commercial success. In fast paced of global markets, this can be difficult to achieve if not sheltered by a large corporation, or focussed coherently in a small organisation. However, the autotelic elements of play and the flow state can help fuel creativity. And we need to foster the creative playgrounds for knowledge sharing which could use the increasingly complex global networks to base themselves.

Tim Rundle

Rundle Has held senior design roles at leading creative consultancies, Priestmangoode, Conran & Partners and Tom Dixon. Since 2015 he has been running his own studio whilest tutoring on the MA design products course at the Royal College of Art (RCA),

Rundle finds the design process intuitive, “with a certain amount of experience, you kind of stop thinking about your process and it becomes natural and sometimes … there is a risk there that you miss opportunities to develop” (Rundle, T. 2017). Through tutoring at the RCA Rundle sees himself as “more aware of the way you are doing things so you can continue to develop it, rather than just becoming an automatic function of the way you work”(Rundle, T. 2017). Relating this to the autotelic properties of play and creativity Rundle sees this in the projects he works on, “It’s kind of nerve wrecking … but once you do this a few times and you have started a few projects with absolutely no idea but you’ve always ended up with a good result you realise it’s fine” This trust in the process is critical for the design process and approaching it in a playful manner frames this uncertainty as excitement and not nerve wrecking.

Rundle’s process keeps it open and free as possible, “I set out to allow chance to come into it”, “keeping your mind open to mistakes if something doesn’t work out how you expected, don’t instantly dismiss it”. It is within these free moments that you should drop your preconceptions, if you carry too much baggage into these processes then you may miss an insight that could be the seed for the entire project, an element of children’s naivety could benefit the designer here. Rundle also mentions he keeps his own 20% time in which he states “I don’t count and worrying about spending that time and that’s often where breakthroughs will come.” (Rundle, T. 2017). Rundle is also cautious of CAD technologies influence in creativity. Stating, one of the “most dangerous tools is key shot … going into that process focused on the end … and you have shown the client this picture, and you have to get there. So you have negated any opportunity to discover alternative routes or details along the way”

Rundle relates his playful creativity back to his childhood where he was always sketching and making things. Most notably, his dream as a young boy to turn his father’s broken lawn mower into a functioning aeroplane. And this is how he works today dreaming up ideas and then figuring out how to make them a reality, “for me [this] is still play”. “After 9 years of working in studios … iterative making and testing of ideas is something that, absolutely, we can’t do without”, “I keep boxes of things that can be used to create ready-mades to test an idea.” The physicality of thinking through making is crucial to Rundle’s creativity. Rapid prototyping provides toys for instant feedback into the next cycle of iterations, keeping in a physical state of flow.

Rundle notes an interesting research method used on a project, “designing new seats for Air New Zealand’s premium economy and economy …we built a section of the fuselage of a 787 and built functioning mock-ups … we staged six-hour flights and using actual cabin crew and method actors .. the general public wouldn’t have been able to get their head around mock-ups and prototypes whereas method actors get used to putting themselves into a scenario” This action of roll play is a criticle occurrence within the design process and appears as empathy, what is interesting here is the use of method actors and as Rundle sees “It would be interesting to be method trained a little bit more, it might be good for designers.” Which would be another interesting research project ‘empathy, role play and method acting within the design process’. But it does highlight designers need to play the part of the consumer by stepping into their shoes, wearing many ‘masks’ and ‘hats’ to gain critical perspectives and insight to the issues at hand. Would fancy dress allow u to play multiple characters at once to aid us is solve complex problems?

Rundle reinforces the notion that design is not a solo endeavour, sociability and playing has benefits not just for critical perspectives but “[At Tom Dixon] the way of coming up with those products was faster and more creative in terms of there was more of a playful approach to making, discussing and collaborating”

Rundle notes that “designers are playing a much larger role in businesses, you’ve got the title chief creative officer now which surely wasn’t around 10 years ago” (Rundle, T. 2017) and highlights Jonathan Ive (Apple) and Mark Parker (Nike) as examples. However Rundle warns “not all designers can have a vision for a wider business and some really great designers are specialised craftspeople, they can do one thing very well … and can be hugely valid.” Designers need to know their strengths and use play as a tool for enhanced creativity in whichever position they operate in. This points towards a broadening spectrum of where designers can operate rather than the changing role of the designer.

In terms of more complex worlds, Rundle points out “you have always had to manage lots of different stakeholders. It is more complex these days because … when you get closer to launching a product … you’re talking to the social media manager and you have to think about how the product is communicated through an image that someone looks at it for three seconds or a 15 second video”, “If you’re there and you can help distil the big idea, … it is much more useful staying involved, … that is much more part of the design these days.” This nurturing a product through all stages of the process is something that Rundle has noted a shift in when back in the 1970s designers could just submit concepts. Now with a royalty based system designers have more of an incentive to ensure a product gets to market and is a success.

Rundle has highlighted the key element of empathy and how role play can help place the designer in the user’s/client’s shoes. Through his open approach to rapid iteration by thinking with his hands, avoiding the constraints of CAD and becoming oversaturated with preconceptions. Rundle has considerable trust in the autotelic qualities of play within the design process, exploring ideas without a specific goal in mind and being guided by typology it allows ideas and concepts to take shape quicker.

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad has a design and research studio in London. Alongside this, he lectures at some of the UK’s leading design schools, including RCA, CSM & Kingston, and is involved with ‘Theatrum Mundi/Global Street’ a cross-disciplinary forum directed by Richard Sennett, a leading sociologist and professor at LSE and NYU. Hashemi-Nezhad furthers his research through residencies and fellowships which have included the V&A and Serpentine Galleries, amongst others.

Hashemi-Nezhad describes some of the work he does as “[exploring] the shifting roles of the designer within complex social systems” and sees that “Designers are in need of possessing skills beyond the needs of industry. We need to act as mediators, translators, therapists, psychics, etc, etc.” (Hashemi-Nezhad, B. 2017). Drawing a distinction between a designer of objects in isolation and designers who tackle social complexities. However one could argue that designed objects can tackle social complexities.

While Hashemi-Nezhad’s work is evident in addressing the complex, or “wicked” issues of Rittle, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Hashemi-Nezhad’ regards his projects, “in general don’t look for strong answers and are not intended to change the system. At least not immediately” (Hashemi-Nezhad, B. 2017). It is the byproducts that create value from his playful approach.

Hashemi-Nezhad employs elements of play as “permissive action research tools” (Hashemi-Nezhad , B. 2017). “Play for me is defined by a command over a situation. That could be a command over a material, an instrument, a space, a social gathering, or in solitary. Play is the permission to rearrange elements”, “I use notions of play theory to defamiliarise participants from their immediate environments and conditions. But also to neutralise power relations momentarily” (Hashemi-Nezhad, B. 2017). Here Hashemi-Nezhad is using elements of play to level the playing field and empower the player.

In an interview, Viktorija Kasperoviča poses the question “Can the creation of games and rules act as a research tool that aids in acquiring knowledge?“ (Kasperoviča , V. 2013) The answer is shown through the success of the diverse projects Hashemi-Nezhad produced in the UK, Japan, India, and Latvia. “Participating in a game as a group, we erase these barriers that are imposed by spatial, geographical, social, economic or political topicalities” and “create an alternative way of looking at space, interpreting from it and switch to the parallel view of people’s current situation.” (Kasperoviča , V. 2013) This allows users and researchers to position themselves outside of the current situation, abandon their preconceptions and take a valuable critical perspective where greater insight can be acquired. They also act as “an agent for reclaiming public space.” and allow people to “express preferred alternatives for living” (Kasperoviča , V. 2013). They parallel the theories of play further by being in the moment and not the end goal that is important. Hashemi-Nezhad dives in and frees himself within the context, curiously exploring through observation and playing with the rules.

As part of an ongoing project to map the complexities of Mapusa Market, Goa Hashemi-Nezhad employed a playful interaction with the local traders in his quest for the “rarely occurring and humorous deformity” of the ‘Naak Wangi’ which translates to nose aubergine, see figure 4. Through this fun engagement, Hashemi-Nezhad was able to gain a greater insight “exposing value systems, mythologies, desires and anxieties.“(Hashemi-Nezhad , B. 2017)

Fig 4. (Hashemi-Nezhad , B. 1993)

Hashemi-Nezhad’s work with Muff Architects/art on art camp 2013 created games and design interventions within the disused St Clement’s hospital, see Figure 5. By activating this space they created a platform for debate in regards to its future development by East London Community Land Trust. In a dinner discussion during the art camp, it was noted how the games produced a “re-determining and divergent thinking” which led to a notion that “Affordance [of the space/place] can be transformed by the imagination”. (Debate Notations, 2013) Showing in a playful state people become more open and can realise other possibilities that were previously closed off to them by the intangible roadblocks put in place by society and culture.

Fig 5. (Hashemi-Nezhad , B. 1993)

There is a global transferability of this approach. Hashemi-Nezhad states “This format can be re-enacted in any locality, by any group of people and the result will always bring new understanding.” (Kasperoviča , V. 2013)

Hashemi-Nezhad employs play theory to great effect as a research tool. Allowing players to position themselves outside of the current situation and abandon their preconceptions to gain valuable critical perspective and challenge the status quo. Hashemi-Nezhad’s work focusses on the research analysis stage of design focusing on ‘social design’. The outcomes of his research could easily be a catalysis for designing the physical.

In review l have found that play resists definition due to its experiential qualities and the fact play is an emergent process identified by the key elements of its effect:


Autotelic, within itself


Governed by rules


Research shows evidence of how play and playfulness are key developmental components for the adaptable and sociable traits which led to the evolutionary success of humans. When reviewing in regards to design it became evident that there is not one hold-fast method for it’s application. However, one truism can be seen in it’s most basic understanding as a problem-solving exercise. through analysis and synthesis, within which, there are divergent and convergent actions. How this comes together varies on the project at hand. But it is the flexibility and adaptability of this approach that makes design thinking a transferable skill.

When comparing play and design, it became evident that they were inextricably intertwined. With playfulness becoming a permissive tool to enable the player to challenge the established rules, and become a tool for the avant-guard.

Playfulness also enhances designers empathy through role play, a valuable tool when considering all designs are human centred to an extent. The critical perspective play facilitates empower decision-making when considering the convergent aspects of the process.

The Autotelic aspect of play is one of the most valuable as it facilitates a proficiency within creativity if mastered. Being in the moment possess the designer with an open mindset where free association can flourish and innovation to appear. This is a daunting process as no outcome is evident from the start but the uncertainty needs to be embraced with curious excitement for greatest effect.

One of the key findings is that play and creativity are not a binary experiences or processes. Like a muscle it needs training and an element of cross-training is required to become strong at it,as well as rest.

Evidence of the increasing speed and complexity of the world today shows the need for a fluid and flexible approach. Play theory allows designers to apply themselves within local and global networks, createing a shared understanding and coherent action within rather than definition and solution.

An understanding of playful elements and how they can be used to improve the design process is a valuable asset to any creative, but this goes beyone this field of practice. So to take the view that play is a way of life, not just limited to the playground, will improve the quality of life for the designer and others in the worlds they create.


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Giving fun and disorder to the amenities of life, I’m a freelance designer focusing on furniture, products and places.