Good design is hard work.
If it were easy to nut out annoying design problems, I might be out of a job. But it’s also true that when you’re dealing in the currency of ideas, time doesn’t always equate to output. The right five minutes can be much more fruitful than the wrong five hours. Often it’s when you stop beating your head against that brick wall that there’s suddenly a moment for new approaches to the problem to present themselves.
It’s a paradox that’s perhaps best explained in the concept of play. The trick is not laboriously grinding away at a problem, but to noodle with it like it were a Rubik’s Cube (OK, bad example). What I mean is, the only difference in how playful we can be with a problem is what mode we’re in when we approach it.
Now, I’m not talking about ditching work. I’m talking about suspending expectations about its outcome. Work drags along with it the heavy burden of productivity. There’s always an input/output equation. After all, objectives must be met.
But when there’s so much focus on getting things done, it’s often hard to be the most clever version of yourself. This is even more the case when you’re trying to think laterally. I freely admit that trying to redefine your work as something that’s free of the pressures inherent in it is a complete mindfuck. But I’m here to tell you it’s possible.
In fact, I’m convinced that the world’s most creative people have a heightened ability to switch into a mode of play. In his book of the same name, Dr. Stuart Brown explains play. The TL:DR is this:
It’s without purpose. Forget about practical value. We’re doing something without spending too much time dwelling on results.
It’s voluntary. We’re doing it because we feel like it — not because our boss (or this post) told you to, dammit.
It’s fun. It should make us feel good. It’s a cure for boredom. (If you’re not ticking this box most of the time, you probably should try a new line of work/play.)
It’s timeless. You know when you’ve been doing something for what feels like 10 minutes and then you realize it’s an hour later? Take a block of time that’s big enough to lose track of it.
It’s free of judgments. Don’t worry about whether something looks right or not, whether it’s smart or stupid. Later we might, but when we’re playing, there are no wrong ideas.
It’s a little random. Be open to serendipity and chance. Get weird with it. Be open to stuff that’s definitely not right. Mistakes can be the quickest way to spark a new line of ideas.
How do you create an environment that fosters play?
Well, it’s not easy. At Facebook the atmosphere is often fast, time-sensitive, and with a pronounced sense of purpose that’s hard to escape. Still, there are plenty of things we do that make work more playful.
Firstly, people work when they want. Luckily, people who are the best in the world tend to want to work quite a bit. This means people also play when they want — arcade machines, pool tables, ripsticks, etc. are littered around the office waiting to be picked up and played with — blurring the lines between work and play.
Time matters too. A lot of the design team stay at home on Wednesdays so they have a consistent, uninterrupted block to get into the zone. We also make time to explore broad ideas at the beginning of a project and share these with each other early and often. The culture is one where people should feel safe sharing crazy half-baked ideas.
Last but not least, the long-standing tradition of Hackathons help give people the freedom (and resources) to explore crazy ideas without the pressure of productivity (plus are a great excuse to order late night Chinese).
Ultimately, play in work comes to those who love what they do for a living. According to Dr. Brown, the work that we find most fulfilling is almost always a recreation and extension of youthful play. How did you play when you were younger? Whether it was lego or tetris, I loved organizing shapes and lining things up (convenient!). Whatever your passion, my advice is this: Find a situation that unlocks your playful side and start working.