As designers, we spend a lot of our time generating ideas. Ideas are arguably the most important ingredient of the design outcome, and the compass that steers the majority of the decisions that occur during the lifetime of a project. Good ideas are hard to come by, and during the strategy phase we often find ourselves wondering how we can increase our rate of generating better and better ideas, to think more originally, to inspire more divergent routes of inquiry, and come up with something great. We also often find ourselves being required to do this within the confines of a standard work day, at particular times and usually in specific locations.
Short of turning this into a tirade about the expected output of creatives in a capitalist economy, and using tired metaphors like turning on and off one's tap of creativity, I’m extending an invitation for you to explore and consider, possibly by loose definition the antithesis of responsibility or expectation; play.
Utilizing play as a part of the design process to help out with generating solutions is not a new tactic by any stretch - it’s reasonable to assume that most creatives are aware of the value of novelty in helping shift perspectives and to provoke discovery; take for example, deciding to work from a café for the morning, or seeing what outcomes are coaxed out by using a new tool or piece of software. We all have our ways of switching up the norm from time to time to help freshen our thinking. And while novelty is certainly play-adjacent, the play I’m referencing here is the childlike, unencumbered, just-for-fun kind of play.
Ask yourself, ‘when was the last time I created for fun?’, purely to see how it would turn out, or because the process was enjoyable. How often do you create for fun? Granted this time can be difficult for most to find in the midst of careers and busy home lives. Nowadays especially, it can also feel as though every personal creative endeavour needs to be transformed into a side-hustle or be generating some form of return to be deemed worthy of our time. But taking this time to play, unencumbered by consequence may just be what our neural pathways need to form new connections, and improve our idea generation chops.
State of Play
In a 4 year study from Cardiff Metropolitan University , researchers and faculty from the School of Art & Design devised a set of experiments that aimed to understand what effects play has on the ability of their design students to generate ideas and improve their design thinking. It was hoped that the results would go toward guiding the enhancement of the curriculum and the learning environment. In their study, they defined play as being “a spontaneous activity that is joyful, …absent of consequences and constraint”, they also cited a book by S. Brown and C. Vaughan titled, ‘Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul’, where they describe, “play as being an altered state… in which joyful emergence occurs”.
In one of their experiments they looked at how the type of play, either physical, imaginary, social or non-related play, affected the level of participants’ creative problem solving abilities. The participants were randomly assigned one of these conditions alongside a control group that took part in no play. Ten participants were in each group, and were each presented with the Candle Problem, a psychological task devised by Karl Duncker, designed to test an individual’s problem solving capabilities. Those in the ‘Social Play’ condition were allowed to communicate with each other via instant message, the ‘Imaginary Play’ participants were told of the task in the form of a story, the ‘Non-Related Play’ group took part in a non-related game prior to being told the task, and the ‘Physical Play’ participants were given the task apparatus and allowed to manipulate it in order to help them solve the task. Those in the control, ’No Play’ group were given written instructions and asked to solve the problem. All participants had five minutes to complete, and record their answer.
The highest number of correct solutions were shown to be in the ‘non-related’ and ‘social’ play groups, who also happened to complete their tasks in a faster time compared to the others. The researchers suggested that there was perhaps ‘more going on than just iterative problem solving when play is part of the design process'. Additionally, in a study that spans over two decades , researchers showed that play may be important because of how the fundamental motivations of play produce a positive effect upon a person’s feelings of well being, and their overall ‘state of being’.
The Cardiff group wanted to test this notion further with their research cohort, by investigating the link between mental state and creativity. They used the metric of heart rate variability, (the variation in the time interval between heartbeats), as a physiologically measurable way of deducing autonomic nervous system activity and thus emotional state. With their participants fitted with devices that would monitor and record their HRV, they investigated their quality of divergent thinking by repeating an external study  that challenged participants to create new names for pasta shapes. Each participant was shown five existing pasta shapes that all notably ended in the letter ‘i’, the thought being that suggestions from the participants for names that did not follow this trend of ending in ‘i’, would indicate divergent thinking. Split into three groups, the first group were told to complete the task immediately, the second group had three minutes of ideation time before starting the task, and the third group were told of the task, but were helped to relax for three minutes before they began. The results of the test showed that there was a considerable difference in creative divergent thinking of the relaxed group, compared to the others. Furthermore, the researchers were able to show a distinct positive connection between thechange in mental state and creativity levels, suggesting that it’s perhaps not only the basal mental state that’s significant, but rather the changing from one state to another that was key.
Can play be practical?
As mentioned previously, it isn’t always easy to carve out part of the work day to suspend our to-do list and take the time to be playful, but we can assimilate some playful tactics into our existing processes. Just like musicians ‘jam’, peeling off into artful exploration guided by intuition and curiosity, revel in the time that you permit yourself, no matter how brief, to fully tap into the enjoyment of your craft, and of the tools that you use. Asking ‘what if’, making room for instinctual and organic creation and removing pressures in order to play freely is akin to what some refer to as flow state.
‘The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct.’
— Carl Jung
As designers, we often hear quips by those who are not in creative fields that we’ve successfully retained more of our childlike wonder, owing to our career choices, and have in some way managed to circumvent the full effects adulthood; Maybe that speaks to a fundamental desire, disguised as a wisecrack. Perhaps given what research shows, it is wise that we visit the act of play often, and enjoy not only the added benefits to our creative thought processes, but also for the proven physiological lilt into a more beneficial state of being. Play may not be practical, but maybe it’s necessary.
 The Importance of Play & Creativity in the Design Curriculum
Loudon G. H. , Deininger G., Wilgeroth P.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance. Educational Psychology.
Lepper M. R., Henderlong J.
Correlation between coherent heart rate variability and divergent thinking
Loudon G. H. , Deininger G.