Why playfulness matters to design practice

Christian Norlin Ericsson Research

Design practice can be defined and described in many ways, ranging from being something almost intuitive to being conformed into structured process steps. However, in order for the outcome of a design process to be relevant or interesting, playfulness is a key factor. In this section of the book, this will be illustrated with the help of a number of projects that all have been carried out with playfulness as an integrated part of their design processes.

“So, why have you decided to have the navigation menu at the top? According to Nielsen, having the menu to the left is what people will prefer to use.” I was baffled by the question – I had just explained the creative process and the reasoning behind the proposed design, and she was referring to… heuristics? The rest of our classmates sitting in the auditorium were silent, though I could see some of them nodding in agreement. My disbelief increased; did they honestly believe that artefacts, real or virtual, should be designed according to some kind of rules or general guidelines? It was painfully obvious that we looked at the act of designing from two complete opposite perspectives. To some people in the room design was apparently merely about problem solving by picking and combining pieces of already known practices and assembling these according to guidelines and heuristics, while for me design was about understanding and exploring the assignment in question and to come up with a solution that not only adequately addressed the core issues, but doing so in a novel and preferably unknown way.

Needless to say, it was a debate that I ungracefully lost. I was a young student with very few arguments for an approach to design that I loved, but also took for granted that everyone shared. Little did I then knew that this was just the first of many similar battles to come.

Someone once stated: “Everything that is not nature is design”. Though as good it may sound (for a designer at least), it is a rather bold statement that really doesn’t explain much. However, as one goes through various definitions of design it quickly becomes obvious that there actually is no commonly agreed upon definition of the term, more than it can be described as a noun: “A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings /…/” (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011 – my shortening), or as a verb: “Decide upon the look and functioning of /…/”  (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011 – my shortening).

Plans and drawings are of course not the only representations of a design given that the designed artifacts can be of many different kinds such as graphics, objects, environments, and services (to list but a few), and that they can be physical as well as digital. Furthermore, today most designers work not just with deciding upon “look and functioning”, but with creating (designing) increasingly complex solutions to given problems or situations considering a number of parameters such as materials (and their properties), time, context, stakeholders (users, clients etc), costs, production, and many more.

The literature on creativity and design and the process(es) behind them is rather extensive, however no real consensus on how to categorize or describe these processes really exists. Some similarities can of course be found, and one of the most central activities or approaches that appears in most descriptions is to work iteratively. This means that as designers approach a task, their ideas of how to address or solve it are quickly created then assessed from a range of criteria, and finally either included in or discarded from further development. If the idea is taken further it will in many cases be tweaked or redesigned (taken the results from the previous assessment of it into consideration) and then undergo the same process of scrutiny again, hence the concept of iterations. This process is strongly connected with concepts such as user-centered design, in which people (the intended receivers and ultimately the users of the designed solution) are involved in the design process by reacting to and providing feedback on the ideas and concepts presented to them. In that way the designer can gain both positive as well as negative insights into how the design proposal works, but also inspiration for more radical design changes. This is something that Löwgren and Stolterman (2004) touch upon in their analysis of the design process (though not described as iterations, and not emphasizing user participation) when they claim that designers throughout the design process constantly redefine the questions and answers of the project. A similar line of thought can be found in Donald Schön’s (1983) Reflection-in-Action theory:

“The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.” (Schön 1983: 68)

Although the amount of varied research of design processes is extremely valuable and in many cases both helpful and thought provoking (there is of course a lot more than mentioned in this text), there is still something that is missing, something that distinguishes design practice from being a structured process to an activity that generates both logical yet unique and in many cases unexpected results. Surely, many practicing designers can relate to the theories regarding design and creativity processes, but there are nuances – important ones – that are missing. To some extent processes are in many cases merely basic guidelines for how to work, and not something that by default affects the qualities of the actual designs in a positive direction. In order to influence the latter, other activities or approaches are required, something that many practicing designers seem to view as equally important factors for being creative and innovative. There are of course many such factors, and one of the most important is definitely playfulness. In order to understand why, let’s dive into the design discipline a bit deeper.

As the definitions of design as described above hint, the design discipline can be described as a rather holistic field in which logical activities such as finding solutions to practical problems are combined with more abstract activities such as defining concepts, looks and behaviours of the solutions in questions. It is not one way or the other (if it would then we would talk about engineering or art), but something in between – more of a multilayered approach that combines logic with aesthetics. Jack Schultze of BERG London touches upon this when claiming that “Design is cultural innovation” (according to Matt Webb in his keynote speech at the 2011 Reboot conference (Webb, 2011 – my interpretation), implicating that innovation and inventiveness is at the core of the design discipline. In the world of commercial design, it is very easy to agree with this since to design is not only about solving a problem, but to do so in a way that the end result is positively distinguishable from the competition. Commercial designers aim to achieve a desired effect, such as how a graphical poster is perceived and understood, or how well a service functions and how it is experienced by the user. In a commercial setting, this most often implies having to work with limitations in the shape of certain technologies, materials, budgets, stakeholders, customer segments, business contexts, to name but a few. Still, the final solution is expected to not only meet the requirements of the different stakeholders but to do so in a unique way (unless you are in the business of merely copying), either in terms of appearance or utility or both.

To non-designers this might sound terribly restricted and harsh, but for most designers this is not something that is dwelled upon since a huge part of the everyday considerations for a designer is the constant strive towards new and novel solutions to given design tasks. This strive resembles innovation, and it is truly a part of the DNA of design; sometimes as a clearly stated requirement, but more commonly as an implied part of the expected solution. In some projects the scope is purposely open and undefined, thus opening up for a design process with a clear incentive to innovate and to come up with novel solutions. However, in many projects the design team works under much harder restrictions with lots of constraints to take into account, though still with the (more or less) explicitly stated requirement to deliver a solution that distinguishes itself from the competition. In either case, almost all designers strive to come up with something unique, something that most designers happily do. In a very idealistic way, designers seem to believe that there is no such thing as a single, final state – there is always something that can be improved, tweaked, or turned upside down. Or as legendary designer Dieter Rahms mentions first when listing ten principles for good design in Gary Hustwit’s movie “Objectified” (2009): “Good design is innovative”. A consequence of Rahms’ and Schultze’s statements must be that designers thus work with innovation as an inherited part of their approach to the assignment as well as of the processes and methods they use to accomplish this – either consciously or not.

Does this mean that all designers are natural talents when it comes to innovation, or that all innovators are actually designers? Certainly not. However, it does mean that given the role of innovation within the design discipline, it is something that designers must address in one way or another.

The term innovation is in dictionaries and thesauruses described with words such as change, revolution, novelty, newness, creativity, originality, and so on. One observation that can be made when going through these definitions is that most descriptions imply that innovation happens as a response to something else – that is, an already known solution, state, or discourse. Innovation can thus be interpreted as a successfully experienced (by the intended receivers) reaction to something that is usual, typical, or standard. Another way of putting this is that innovation is a reaction to norms – it’s a challenge of “something that is usual, typical, or standard” (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011). Norms are from a design perspective somewhat of a double-edged sword. In many cases there are already products or solutions in the marketplace that the designer has to take into consideration in the design process. The bad news is that from a novelty point of view, one has to spend quite some effort on making sure to avoid designing something too close to the competition. This can be pretty hard since it in many cases means that people already are using solutions that address their needs and also that they have learnt how to use these solutions. In other words: The users have already formed some kind of mental model (which is not your model!) of what the things are and how they work. The good news is that the already existing solutions might be badly designed, meaning that they might not address certain needs and requirements from their users, or they might be designed in such ways that they are really cumbersome to use and thus provide for rather poor experiences of use. In any case, norms and conventions can thus present themselves as potential problems, but also as opportunities for improvement and innovation. When approaching a design task this is a key dilemma: Which norms or conventions need to remain, and which can be challenged, developed, or even replaced? Furthermore, how are designers or design teams to go about doing this? How can norms and conventions be challenged in constructive ways in order to lead to something novel and innovative but also functional and desirable?

This is where the processes and methods that designers use come in to the picture, and where playfulness plays a tremendously important – yet strangely hidden – role.

A design project might be formally structured with milestones and toll gates for various iterations and deliveries, but truth be told, in many cases the nature of the work being done is far more organic, much more exploratory and play like. In many cases, it is even justified to go as far as to claim that “iterations” is just another (though more boring) word for exploratory play. Regardless of the norms surrounding projects in general, the exploratory play approach is one of the underlying foundations for how design – including inventiveness and norm breaking – is achieved. For some designers/design teams it’s a clearly stated process, while for others it’s not as clearly communicated. In either case, the exploratory play it still there, no matter what we call it.

One of the most successful design and innovation agencies in the world is IDEO. IDEO works with design and innovation for all kinds of clients and in a variety of projects, may it be design of toothbrushes, airplane interiors, or pumps for wells in Africa. Not only are they highly regarded as successful designers and innovators within the within the design community, the business world seems to have realized the potential of their approach as well given that IDEO CEO Tim Brown has been an invited speaker and panelist at several of the World Economic Forum annual conferences. Considering their success it’s obvious that IDEO is doing something very right, and that this most likely has to do with their corporate culture and the way they work.

When Googling IDEO two videos appear high in the result lists. One is a clip from an ABC Nightline episode from 1999 (innovatuspteltd, 2010) in which a team at IDEO is documented as they are working on a project with the goal to re-design a shopping cart. The process was documented by the TV show and the episode also includes interviews with several employees, in particular with IDEO founder David Kelley. One recurring topic discussed is the importance of playfulness in everything from the design of the office environment to the processes used to tackle projects. It turns out that this is a deliberate strategy, as David Kelley claims: “Being playful is of huge importance for being innovative”.

This attitude/corporate culture is reinforced by the other video clip that appears in the search result list. It’s a clip of the current IDEO CEO Tim Brown at the 2008 Ted Talk conference in Oxford, UK (Brown, 2008) where he gave a presentation on the topic of creativity and playfulness. In his talk, Brown repeatedly points at the importance of play for creative processes and innovation. As he puts it: “Playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions.” In relation to this, Brown also talks about the concept of exploratory play and how children utilize this approach in order to discover the world around them and the possibilities it provides them with. That is why a wooden stick in the hands of my son can become anything from a laser sword to a fishing rod, an approach to look an existing solution or state from a completely different perspective, which is highly desirable from a creative/innovative point of view. In the two videos Dave Kelley and Tim Brown mention many more examples of how central playfulness is for the creative process, thus emphasizing how playfulness seems to be at the very core of the culture within IDEO.

Another example of how highly playfulness has been (and is) regarded in relation to innovativeness and creativity can be found in the marketing messages of Apple Computer. This was particularly apparent looking back to the 1980’s and 90’s when Apple held on to a fraction of the total market share for personal computers. It was an inverted version of today’s iPhone/iPad mass market hype, apart from one segment of consumers: The ones within the creative field, such as designers, illustrators, animators, photographers, musicians and so on. During the 1990’s Apple released a number of TV commercials for the iMac, and though these commercials might differ in appearance, the common thread is that they all play with the concept of playfulness in various ways. In everything from the first iMac commercials such as “Colors” (mattreichling, 2009) in which the iMac computer is presented as a carnival of colors accompanied by the Rolling Stones 1967 song “She’s Like a Rainbow”, to the anthropomorphic “In the window” (VectronicsAppleWorld, 2007) playfulness is one of the core values being communicated. Compared to other brands, these commercials represented a very different approach to how they described the products and the brand that they were to market. Sure, there were other consumer electronic manufacturers that also had playful ads, but no one came close to Apple. Apple took this to a completely new level in their 1997 commercial “Think Different” (mwkchan, 2007) which focused specifically on creativity, innovation, and the importance of playfulness. The commercial is a celebration of famous people that have made remarkable achievements, such as Muhammad Ali, Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso, and many more. However, as the commercial is coming to its end and as the speaker voice says “Because people that are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do” – the last person that is shown in the video is a child.

So why is playfulness so hidden from the discourses about design processes? One reason is surely because of norms (again!) for how design and development processes are *supposed* to be structured and run, especially when they are financed by clients who want to ensure that they get enough bang for the bucks (or just want to make sure that they can send a trustworthy status report to upper management). To them, this exploratory or playful approach to development might be perceived as unstructured, fluffy and even a bit provocative, especially to those used to working in projects at (most often) big corporations where the process of the project is of such importance that it is structured and monitored down to the tiniest detail. That is why so many of the design agencies/consultants seem to tuck away playfulness behind stacks of bland presentation slides describing their work processes. Not because they necessarily want to, but in order to maintain some kind of imaginary credibility and since the norm for how consultant agencies should present themselves says so.

Or maybe it’s because playfulness is looked upon as something whimsical or fun, in other words a “/…/ behavior or an activity that is intended purely for amusement and should not be interpreted as having serious or malicious purposes” (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011).  As expressed by an almost offended senior research engineer colleague of mine that not long ago shouted: “But are you going to do all the fun stuff?!” when we at the User Experience Lab laid out our design activity plans for a coming joint research project.

Regardless of the reason for why the dimension of playfulness in design – be it the noun or the verb definition – seems to be so sensitive or difficult to describe, it is obvious that the ones that successfully work with design do not seem to shy away from it, quite the opposite. In order to see new patterns, to be able to overturn norms, and to connect the previously unconnected dots, one has to be allowed to wander off the grid. As the photographer/designer/painter Cecil Beaton said: “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” If this is something to strive for (and it really is!), being playful is a good start.
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