The Power of Play

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Last week I was watching an interview with the incredibly talented Jessica Walsh. I’m always curious as to how the world’s most creative people operate because I don’t really consider myself a very “creative” designer in the art sense.

She said something very profound about one of the most important aspects of her highly lucrative creative career: play. At the start of any project or exercise, Jessica allows herself to just play. She has no predetermined set of rules or processes and she’s not caged in to any of the static limitations we tend to put on our creative work.

I’ve been sitting on this idea of “play” as a creative asset over the last week and decided to put it into…well, play.

The Importance of an Anti-Process Process

I was having a discussion with my friend Yaron yesterday about the plaque of process that the design and development community tends to force on itself. I asked him what his philosophy was when approaching a new design problem and he said he doesn’t favor process. He would rather daydream and allow his mind to discover all of the possibilities without committing to even the slightest of static wireframes. He would rather “play” to discover new opportunities, than to limit himself to the same frameworks, processes, strategies, and boilerplates used on multiple other projects.

Many times “play” becomes the anti-process process that we need to create something new, something outside of the normal framework. When we put something down in Photoshop first or we sketch the first wireframe for a site’s navigation, we’re subconsciously limiting ourselves to a static idea constrained by what we’ve already seen or done. This rarely leads to a new, more innovative solution that sets you apart as a unique designer.

Opening Your Mind’s Eye

Part of being a great designer is developing the ability to truly see with a design eye. Seeing doesn’t always limit itself to the physical act of looking at something. One of the powerful side effects of playing is that your mind is free to discover all angles of a design problem.

Most of the design challenges we face are designing solutions for people to use out in the world, yet we find ourselves trying to solve them from behind the discomfort of our desks. If you’re designing an iPhone app for a restaurant, take a trip to a restaurant with a friend and start to “play” with ridiculous ideas and watch the little nuances that will present themselves while observing how people actually use their phones in the restaurant.

What you discover when observing and playing with ridiculous notions will give you insights you never would have thought about by starting your project out in Xcode.

Google’s Secret Weapon of Play

One of Google’s secret weapons of designing a new product is to use video to tell the story of a design before it has even see the first prototype. Rather than creating a design first and expecting people to adapt to it, Google’s designers will take their idea down to the video team and let them play with the idea first. Allowing a creative third-party to produce the story of the idea, helps you to see a completely new approach without the limitations of an early static comp.

Play leads to breakthroughs and real-world imagination of use and application. By placing physical design further down the timeline, Google’s design team is able to see multiple design problems and solutions without having to spend hours “guessing” at solutions.

Go Play

Before starting your next design project, try to leave Photoshop and code out of the idea process. Grab a camera and make a video, take the time to imagine the craziest uses you could fathom, or just ask non-designers to make your site out of construction paper. Design a website upside down or create a new interface that is completely off-grid. Do something that is completely ridiculous and get out of your comfort zone.

Be comfortable with playing and use it as a creative asset. You’d be very surprised at the new opportunities that come from it.

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Comments

13 comments on “The Power of Play

  1. Great article! So simple, yet got me immediately inspired to start “playing” with a project I’m working on. Sometimes we forget these things. Thanks for the reminder. =)

  2. Great advice! It believe process is important eventually, but letting your mind soar sounds like a great way to start.

  3. “or just ask non-designers to make your site out of construction paper.”

    Yeah… no. That’s the received answer to that question ;)

  4. Thanks a ton Josh!!! As a beginning designer/developer this is really helpful, I love the idea!