"Without playfulness no creative thought can occur," says SAP Hybris Vice President of Product Design Heike Rapp. "As Mr. Einstein might've said: Creativity is intelligence having fun."
Rapp knows that creativity is one of the most important qualities that CEOs look for in their employees. "It's also one of the hardest qualities to hire for; 80 percent of CEOs say that they have a hard time finding creative people to fill pivotal roles."
Rapp and I recently met at Neocon, the commercial design industry fair, where I talked to her team about our design process, DE:RE (short for Deconstruction:Reconstruction), and something in our discussion made me think--what do I mean when I highlight the importance of thinking playfully about serious problems?
When we play, we're like kids--we're not afraid of making mistakes. Kids learn by doing. They draw and make things with cardboard, glue, and paint. They build imaginary places with Legos, and they fill in the blanks to create stories with Mad Libs. These games are similar to those we designers play in order to generate new ideas.
Rapp grew up with a father who believed in playfulness. He taught his kids how to build things--model planes mostly, but other stuff as well, as long as his kids were learning something technical and about materials he was happy. Now she constantly encourages playfulness in teams because of the many benefits that playfulness brings.
"Within a creative or design team, playfulness comes almost naturally to us. When we sketch, when we create, make, sculpt, think, write, we don't or can't rely on rigid methodologies to come up with novel ideas. Yes, we can follow a general creative process, but an algorithm for play and creative idea generation doesn't exist, and probably can't exist. Playfulness is truly human."
Here's how you can too be playful at work:
Practice "Rong" Thinking.
Start with the worst possible idea. Something so bad it that can get you fired. Then think about how you can turn that bad idea into a good one. I often think of Nike's Flyknit in these terms. What can be worse than a knitted shoe or something your grandma would make? But a knitted shoe only uses the yarn necessary to make it, simplifying while making it sustainable. And that is a good idea.
Rapp says, "As a manager I encourage teams to be playful by creating an emotionally safe atmosphere. No idea is bad. We support each other and build on each other's ideas. To play, you need to show up with an openness, and, as they say in yoga classes, you need to surrender your ego before you play."
Connect all the dots.
Everything around you is potentially an inspiration for a problem you're trying to solve. This is why designers are often likened to sponges--we soak things up, not knowing where we might find inspiration. You can be inspired by a billboard you see as you pass by it (42nd Street inspired the vertical displays for the Resolve Office System we designed for Herman Miller), a film you're watching (StoryBrand founder Donald Miller came up with his framework while binge-watching films), or simply by watching people (OXO founder Sam Farber was watching his wife peel potatoes when he realized the need for a potato peeler for arthritic hands, which became the beginning point for Good Grips).
What Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech in June 2005 about trusting disparate dots is why designers trust their gut for inspiration.
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference."
Rapp allows enough time and resources for playfulness. She encourages her designers to take classes (and even pays for them) and do activities that might be peripherally related to their job. "Because to be inspiring you need to be inspired," she added. "And we're all humans with many interests. You play better when you're exposed to many new impressions."
Do Design MadLibs.
Rapp has done some serious playing doing design mad libs, an activity that was inspired by the MIT Design Lab. "You can put design mad libs into a corporate environment by picking the words appropriately. For example, for Herman Miller, you could "design a chair that is made of protein and includes a mother and expresses laughter". For Autodesk, "design a new school that is made of circles and includes a genie and expresses curiosity." She says you laugh a ton when you do it for two hours and that it is a brilliant team bonding activity.
If you want to play, here is how Rapp does it:
Design a ____ [thing, or a philosophy, economy, any idea] that is made of ___[a material] and includes a ____ [anything goes] and expresses ___ [an emotion]. Allow 3-5 minutes to come up with ideas. If materials are around, build something too.
We use a very similar exercise when we help teams converge on a vision at the end of an ideation session using emotion, data, values, constraints, opportunities, choices:
Design your _____ [work, team, organization, or the topic of your choice] to express _____ [an emotion] that is built on _____[a foundational, guiding value], to transform ____ [a constraint, challenge] into ____ [an opportunity, or an out-of-the-box idea] because we choose ____ [a choice that is an action, idea, or a point-of-view].
Rapp says, "Playing with the materials, together with our colleagues, opens us up, creates a better mood, makes us laugh. When teammates trust each other and can laugh, you know that playfulness is part of their daily regimen."
Great ideas come to those who play. Let's make time and space for it.