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In my article “On the Creative Process,” I left aside one deep component of creativity because this aspect of creativity — i.e., play — is worthy as a topic unto itself. Play is at the heart of the creative process. And at risk of stating the obvious: creativity is at the heart of design.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to address the value of play for mental health and quality of life, which is immense. Here, we’ll concentrate on the essential role of play in creativity.

Play puts us into a state of mind where it’s okay to wonder “what if?” — where it’s okay to imagine. This state of mind removes the usual barriers to what’s possible and opens the doors to creative insights and breakthroughs.

Studies show that allowing students to spend time playing with a wad of Play-Doh® before conducting a task fosters better output and more creative ideas. Hang on — this is not just for children.

Play Is for Kids

Well, this is sad. We all know that as people age, they seem to lose their capacity for play. Out the window it goes, along with a big bunch of creativity. Again: sad. But not necessarily true. The good news is that the capacity for play is “still in there somewhere,” and we now know that the effect of play on creativity and imagination “ain’t just for kids” after all. We’re not talking about solitary “play” on devices, either. We’ve all heard the stories about major corporations adding fun spaces for employees to de-stress and clear their heads. The other good news is that a business doesn’t have to invest in ping-pong tables, dart boards, or foosball to achieve space and time for play. Serious research on fun tells us that we can still have it regardless of age or surroundings.

The Safe Space

One key to unlocking play in designers and their clients is establishing a safe space where ideas and concepts can be explored without judgment or peer pressure. We do this in the Brand Session for this same reason:  because the safe space is standard operating procedure for creating the conditions for creativity. This is true with every design project as well as with the brand-development process.

The goal of the safe space is to pull people out of their “normal” ways of thinking, their habits and blocking behaviors, and to get “un-stuck” — to clear the way for invention, experimentation, and exploration, ergo: play. Design at its best involves solutions that can be found through such trust, exploration, and experimentation. In the Brand Session we also leverage another kind of play when we do the brand experience “walk-through.” It’s role-playing, plain and simple. Imagination and play are necessary. Kids do this instinctively. Reach for your “inner kid.”

The best results from the design process are achieved when there is trust between the designer and the client and we establish permission to explore solutions. By extension, this approach is also healthy for any business, since it fosters expanded thinking and triggers breakthroughs not only in marketing, design, and branding, but also in specific products and even in business processes. In the design process, there is a generative phase where concepts and approaches are explored, generally followed by a development phase where the discovered concepts are made manifest (printed, built, fabricated, implemented). We acknowledge that the development phase involves some risk and some cost for the client. Sometimes it takes courage on the client’s part to reach beyond the ordinary and the expected, and when this happens, there is great potential. Imagine for a moment the meeting where the marketing firm pitched the concept of the AFLAC duck. The client had the courage to go with it, and the rest is history.

Don’t be afraid to P-L-A-Y!

Pursue the “what-ifs.”

Lose the limitations on thought and exploration.

Address the real-world needs of the solution with fresh eyes.

Yes. Say “Yes.”

But Wait, There’s More! Here (In No Particular Order) Are Some Useful Links

If you look at nothing else, watch this TED Talk — Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play

From Big Think, the neuropsychology — Why more play is the key to creativity and productivity

See the section on creativity and play for all ages in “Playing with Creativity Across the Lifespan: A Conversation with Dr. Sandra Russ” in this article from the National Institutes of Health / National Center for Biotechnology Information

From HelpGuide.org on mental health and creativity, including at work — Article on the benefits of play for adults.

Article on “The Genius of Play — 10 Ways Adults Can Be More Playful” by Kathleen Alfano

Article on the Fast Company website – In times of uncertainty, our most creative thoughts can happen through play – on the Value of play for adults and creativity at work

And finally — “Who-Knew?!” On the general topic of creativity itself, see the Creativity Research Journal

See more Thoughts.

On the Value of Play