Designing Play

Sjoerd Smit
Sep 14, 2017 · 6 min read

I am glad to say our work often resembles play. Of course there is always a directive, which technically shouldn’t be there if you consider it ‘textbook’ play, but ever so often we find the space to let our imagination roam free and turn it into reality. Looking back to our own childhoods, we wondered what pastime made the afternoons just glide by in a similar way. That joyous feeling of being completely engaged in something.

Beyond boxes & sticks

Now that we see the next generation, rather passively but deeply, involved in their smart screens we wondered how this compares to the toys we used to play with. Smart screens are not a bad thing, we certainly loved our Tetris, but can we think of a modern variant that is less consumed play but more active and engaging play?

absolutely consumed

Every child naturally plays open-ended and imaginatively. Randomly combining anything on mind or on hand to turn imagination into reality. In the beginning simple colorful cups can suffice allowing repetition, recognition and the stimulation of the senses. But the older we get and the more we grasp our surroundings, play becomes more diverse and adhoc. Boxes and sticks mix with Barbie and Playmobil in true Toy Story form, anything goes.

Later on when we start playing more actively and socially, gameplay becomes more important. And gradually we will venture further out as we become more mobile, playing not only at home, but outside, in the neighborhood and beyond.

how play evolves

What it is is beautiful

We are not the first inventors to look into play. It is a compelling subject, maybe because we feel our work resembles play, maybe while we wonder how we can engage more children into a future of creativity. One of the obvious examples of successful toys is LEGO. It manages exceptionally well to keep children engaged across age. When children gradually become more dextrous, the bricks increase in complexity, from the basic Duplo all the way to the enabled LEGO Boost. This aspect intrigues us, how can we design play that remains relevant across age?

A bright, colorful cloud of possibilities

The digital world is becoming as real to a modern child as the physical world. These are not only smart screens, we imagine a bright, colorful, virtual cloud of possibilities hovering over the existing playground. Can children embrace virtual character in active play as they do with existing elemental ones from the physical world? A rock is hard, and can be used for skipping across water or to build a tower. A stick is for poking or a sword fight, because it is long slender and made of wood. What imaginative play can be stimulated by making an object react in the real world to digital inputs?

With LEGO the undeniable fun is for a large part in the building. Close to our designer hearts, but we realize we are biased. We wondered how we could capture the ad hoc, anything goes mentality from early imaginative play, without focusing too much on the actual creation of toys, but more on the creation of play. How can we create elements that draw out imaginative play and mix as easily with a stick as with a Barbie doll. And we think the key might be in the combination with the digital.

We recently started working on something that we hope can stimulate imaginative play and merge the physical with the digital. We gave it a name; Shapie McShapes.

They are, for now, rings. Because rings can be put around things, objects can pass through the ring, they invite to be held and to be interacted with, in other words a versatile shape.

a specimen dissected

Throwing it about

We gave rings the ability to detect different kinds of inputs and react with a variety of outputs. Enabling a shape to detect location, sound, light and motion. It can then react by sound, light or communicate its sensing with other Shapies. These inputs and outputs can then be combined with timing, counting and other forms of logic.

This offers us a palette to design with, but more importantly a platform to assess the ability to invite engagement. If we make the ring sound and light up like a firetruck, will it complement existing play? When Barbie will actually be able to talk back will that make play more engaging? We are especially trying to find engaging shapes and a matching feature set that will enable imaginative play.

a versatile shape

High suspense, unexpected magic

In addition we have build interactions and behaviors that draw out play and can form building blocks for more extensive gameplay. Memory is not just a card game, but an active game of hide and seek all over the house when sounds can be left to be found in virtual space. You can keep count of the Nerf-darts that were on point and compete with somebody on the other end of the world.

Our aim is not to just make smart variants of existing games, but see how access to a digital world can enable new gameplay. What happens when the rules of tag change halfway through the game? New triggers can be added that seem completely random, but can give a new form of suspense.


We would play cops and robbers around the neighborhood in my childhood, it was all imagination, but how wonderful if I could have tracked my opponents position, sneak out of prison, solve puzzles and capture the flag with the acute sense of suspense as experienced in any modern online game.

Active play can be like online games. Hidden layers, high suspense and unexpected magic. Gameplay with anyone anywhere across the globe. We see great potential in enabling this bright, colorful cloud of possibilities into active gameplay for all ages of play. The potential magic is captured in the movie below. Keep an eye out, we’ll have more to show soon.

Sjoerd Smit is a Principal Product Designer at Handmade.

Handmade is a Product Invention Lab based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and operates across the globe. Handmade helps forward looking technology companies design and prototype their next big things.

If you are interested in these thoughts and the impact on your potential business, get in touch. We love to play.

More articles by Handmade

Handmade Amsterdam

Handmade is a Product Invention Lab based in Amsterdam, The…

Handmade Amsterdam

Handmade is a Product Invention Lab based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and operates across the globe. Handmade helps forward looking technology companies design and prototype their next big things.

Sjoerd Smit

Written by

Handmade Amsterdam

Handmade is a Product Invention Lab based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and operates across the globe. Handmade helps forward looking technology companies design and prototype their next big things.

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