Playtime and Innovation

We’ve all experienced the brainstorming sessions that result in two hours lost and a host of ideas that, upon reflection, are simple rehashings of the same old thing. We lay out a client’s goals, we break out the stickies, and we take turns at the whiteboard. At the end of the session we’re often tired, uninspired, and feeling like we haven’t come close to a real game-changing idea. I would argue that a lot of this can be overcome by rethinking how we approach the process and that we get back to a simple truth from childhood. Quite simple, let’s start playing again.1399364918739.jpg

Without a play-like attitude, insights hide from us.
Our goal to become creative gets mired in the anxiety of producing something that will please the client, change the world, etc. When we don’t engage in activities that involve exploration, imagination, and play, being creative becomes a chore. It is just another task we need to complete.

Multiple research studies have demonstrated the power play has on our ability to think and work creatively. Back in n 1967, Brian Sutton-Smith demonstrated that participants in his study who were given a task to imagine various purposes for an object were likely to come up with more ideas than their peers if they were allowed to play and tinker with the object first. The act of exploration sparked the imagination and produced a wider variety of ideas. Play, whether we’re talking about children or adults, instills a sense of creativity and challenges the mind to think in non-linear, adaptive ways.

But why should this be the case? The research (and there is far more than Sutton-Smith’s original study) shows that play-like activities put us into a psychological state of mind where failure becomes experimentation, allowing us to pose the simple but profoundly important question “what if?” We are given license to explore the unknown and look for solutions to problems without the hindrance of performing a sequence of tasks. From that exploration creative insights emerge freely and we can find connections we might otherwise overlook.

Play involves a very “pretend” type of world where most anything goes. This isn’t to say play is a free for all, lacking rules and boundaries. But it is an open forum for the mind and strips away the need to please. The act becomes the important element rather than pleasing the actors for whom we work. The result of play becomes very real, particularly when it comes to creativity, because we are focused on the act rather than the outcome. By removing the strain and constraints of the real world, play allows us to more openly explore possibilities in our work. But play offers us more than mere escape. It offers us more exposure to diversity of perspectives.

By nature, play is rooted in a higher degree of ambiguity than, say, traditional brainstorming, and as a result produces a higher degree of diversity. The range of ideas we produce and share with others broadens significantly. When we play, we are free to utilize any play items within our grasp as well (balls, paper, glue, scissors, pencils, game boards and pieces, etc.). That means we are not self-limiting and we uncover a much wider range of areas where we can apply what we learn and what we make.

Play removes limits that otherwise constrain us to what we currently know to be possible. By removing those constraints and opening ourselves up to what is possible, creative insights become the norm of what we’re doing.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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