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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

Playing a warm-up game at the National Gallery of Art

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . ”
– Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to move innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaborationUsing improv games for brainstorming and embracing failureUsing improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Playing a game called the "one-minute gift" with Post-its
Playing a warm-up game before user testing at the National Gallery of Art, the “Two-Minute Invention

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . .  The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
– Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and research Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

Testing a prototype
Testing a playful prototype with visitors at the National Gallery of Art

 

4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

“Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.”
– Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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What museums can learn from improv: three principles to make museums more human-centered and empathetic

© Aude Vanlathem / www.audevan.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA
Aude Vanlathem / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA

In improvisational theater, there are some shared principles that the improvisers work from. These principles create a positive and supportive platform upon which the improvisers, or “players,” can do their best work. What if the principles that allow improvisers to thrive and excel could be applied to museums?

In this post, I consider three principles from improv theater and share thoughts on how incorporating these principles into museum practice could make museums more human-centered and empathetic institutions.

1. Take care of yourself and each other

One of the most important practices in improv is to take care of yourself and the other improvisers on stage. If your basic needs aren’t met (physical safety, emotional comfort, etc.), you can’t focus on the story and the audience.

Applying this principle to museum practice means taking care of staff. How can museums possibly serve their visitors well if they don’t take care of their own people?

In the majority of museums, the staff members always get the least amount of care and resources, far behind in priority after the objects in the collection and the visitors in the galleries. I’ve worked for numerous U.S. museums throughout my career, from major institutions to small university museums, and I’ve experienced first-hand how enormous the demands are on staff. I can’t even count the number of museums I’ve worked in that house employees in windowless offices or basements (or both), deprived of natural light and fresh air, while boasting beautiful, state-of-the-art public galleries. Budgets are constantly being cut, work is always increasing, and the staff is always asked to do more and more with less—while putting the objects and visitors first.

How can museums create visitor-centered institutions that serve and engage their audiences if their own staff members are unsupported? What if we took better care of ourselves first, so that we could better empathize with and design for our visitors?

2. Make your partner look good

Another key tenet of improv is to make your partner look good. Instead of thinking of a witty, clever, or scene-stealing line or move you can make, you focus on what you can do in the moment to make your partner look good. Because making your partner look good helps everyone: it establishes a supportive environment, moves the story forward, and, ultimately, makes you look good, too.

What if museums adopted this as a core value around both visitors and staff? Can you imagine interpretative materials and public programs that were designed specifically to make visitors look good? Or staff meetings in which colleagues made a conscious effort to make their co-workers look good in front of each other?

For visitors, this might mean initiatives and programs that allow visitors to scaffold their current knowledge of a subject, or even show off that expertise to their peers. For example, I recently worked with the Indianapolis Museum of Art on using design thinking strategies to develop visitor activities in conjunction with an upcoming exhibition of concept cars. One of the ideas that emerged from interviews we conducted with visitors was the notion of developing activities that allow visitors who are very knowledgeable about cars to share (and even show off) that knowledge to peers. This is not meant as a way to appeal to vanity; it is a means of engaging these visitors through their pre-existing knowledge of and passion for cars.

The notion of making your partner look good builds confidence, trust, and collaboration—values that can enhance experiences for both museum visitors and staff.

3. Build on each other’s ideas

This is also known as the “Yes, and” principle. It’s the holy grail of improv, and at the heart of the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford d.school. The concept is that you accept all of your partner’s ideas, rather than dismissing, negating, changing, or denying them. You follow your partner’s lead, and build on what your partner gives you. It’s additive, and moves everything forward, getting you to a place you can’t possibly go by saying “no, but” to each other.

When I introduce museums to the design thinking process, we consciously adopt this principle during brainstorming, and warm up by playing games that contrast what it feels like to say “no, but” with “yes, and.” Quite simply, when we say “no, but,” we don’t get anywhere. We stall, discuss, re-think, re-hash and over-analyze the status quo.

“Yes, and” also fosters inquiry, a core value for almost every museum. Jen Oleniczak (@TheEngagingEd) has written about how the “yes, and” principle is akin to the open-ended questioning of inquiry-based learning. Just as negation ends an improv scene, in teaching, it shuts down the learning process. Oleniczak writes that this is “about saying, ‘Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better’ instead of ‘no, I have a better idea.'”

“Yes, and” is about co-creation and the scaffolding of knowledge; it moves you away from ingrained patterns of thoughts and behaviors and towards new, innovative ideas.

Conclusion

National Public Radio has been doing a series on play this month, with some fantastic pieces about the importance of play for adults. Play builds empathy, strengthens teams, keeps one’s mind sharp, and develops problem-solving skills. To an outsider watching a group do improv, it looks like a bunch of adults playing around like kids. And that’s exactly what it is; it’s play in a safe space with clear guidelines and shared principles.

I’d like to propose that these clear guidelines and shared principles practiced by improv players can inform museum professional practices and institutional cultures, enhancing our ability to connect and collaborate and making our institutions better places for staff and visitors alike.

 

For details on specific games you can play in your museum to foster creativity and collaboration, see my three-part post on improv games.