What happened to the joy?


Design is a serious business. Designing things for people is hard and bears a responsibility to not make things worse for those people.

For the business the stakes are high. Bad design can be the ruin of a company, as such it can also be the thing that sets a company a part from the rest.

Of course I’m talking about design in the broadest sense, the design of how things are as opposed to simply how they look.

Ten years ago there were a lot of articles about design getting a seat at the table. We wanted design to be taken seriously. We saw its power and importance but the others weren’t yet listening. We were like teenagers screaming to our parents that our goth phase is not another fad, it’s who we are and it’s here to stay.

We got our wish. CDOs and design-minded CPOs are now commonplace in many startups and tech companies. The quantification of design’s value has been measured and proven by some smart consulting folks. We won, we’re no longer shunned teenage goths but serious business people walking the walk.

If we saw business functions as the education curriculum we might say design has been promoted from the sideline arts choices, such as music and drama, to the core curriculum alongside maths, science, and English. Pretty cool, right? Except no one cares if you get a D in art and everyone needs you to get an A in maths. Jeez.

All of this importance and responsibility is weight, weight that can feel like baggage. Baggage drags you down, makes you feel heavy. It’s hard to have light thoughts when you feel so heavy. Yet light thoughts is what makes design so special.

Let’s run with the baggage analogy for a moment. Imagine you’re thinking about where you want to go on holiday. Normally people ponder excitedly about all the possibilities; it’s fun to dream. But this time you’re going to make the decision of where to go on holiday with the bags already packed, your house keys in hand, the taxi waiting on the curb, with the meter running and your partner and kids sat inside; waiting impatiently, wondering where you’ll take them. Deciding where to go suddenly feels less like playful dreaming and more like a problem to solve.

That’s kinda how people start new design challenges. All that baggage, the clock running down, people relying on you and waiting for you, money trickling away as meter of opportunity keeps running. Together it says, ‘this is no time for fun and frivolity, get to work and make it damn good’.

No wonder then that the job of design feels like a heads-down sprint to the finish line rather than a potter around a garden of Eden.

The case for making space

I sit somewhere in the middle of the optimist-pessimist scale. I can be known to dream but I can also be known to dwell on problems.

I take design seriously and I believe it is serious business. There are many moments in the design process when the problems must be worked through and the heaviness dealt with. But not enough attention is given to the dreaming, the questioning of what if? As designers this is our problem to solve. No one will give us permission to play and dream. Play doesn’t create measurable results that will tell us if we’re hitting our OKRs. We must stop waiting for permission and do what we know is right.

If we don’t make space for play, dreaming, and fun in the process of design we risk losing the opportunity for design to be a key driver of success. Innovative design isn’t born of weighty, heavy departments stuck in the doldrums of how things are today. We know that but we hardly act like it. Space for play and dreaming must be made.

It should feel fun but not in the bean bags and ping pong kinda way. Design and tech got into a weird place when people started putting slides in their offices. I love fussball as much as the next guy but I wouldn’t say it has been a necessary component in the process of generative ideation. Inviting fun into the process of design is less about this stuff and more about doing the work of design whilst we hold all the weight off to one side. Doing this effectively requires building a muscle for pushing aside constraints and problems and pulling them closer at the right moments.

I call this ‘holding reality at arms length’. To do so recognises the existence of reality but says it can wait whilst we play. When someone asks how we’ll implement an idea that is still in its infancy I tell them, “Let’s stick with possibility for the moment before we get stuck dealing with reality.” You don’t ask a four year old how they plan to support themselves when they eventually become responsible for their own lives. No, we hold the realities of life away from them to allow their wonder and curiosity to make sense of the world in a way that feels fun.

The job of a parent is sort of like being the creator of this bubble that protects children from harsh realities, as they get older, parents puncture small holes in the bubble, letting in spots of reality until slowly but surely the bubble is gone. We can see the early stages of design in this way, slowly letting realities through at the right moments when our ideas are ready to be exposed to them.

‘Design in a bubble’ is a different analogy where design happens disconnected from other departments and sometimes users. Creating a bubble for play doesn’t necessarily mean that it must be an isolated experience. Instead, we should play with as many players as possible.

Being a kid should feel light being an adult often feels heavy. The early stage of design should be a youthful energy.

Play isn’t for everyone

I believe that everyone has the ability to be fun and playful. Yet we all have individual ideas of what that looks like to us. Going to IKEA is fun for me, to others it’s hell on Earth. As we invite others into our sphere of play we can be met with players who don’t see play the way we do. This is ok. When this happens we have a choice. We help them understand or do we engage with them another way that works for them.

I recently sensed that some senior stakeholders felt disdain at the thought of being dragged into another sketching workshop. No matter, as custodian of fun it’s not my place to tell others how to be. I simply talked them through the sketches after and got their input verbally. It worked better for them, and we still played.

Doing it right is better than getting it right

Fear is the enemy of play.

Come up with 100 ideas is a very different challenge to bring me one great idea. One invites endless possibilities, the other will lead to us staring at a blank page, scared to make a mark.

This is not a lamenting of the past. This is about progressing design in way that remains true to what made design so special in the first place. We needn’t step away from the table in order to do that, instead we must secure our seat whilst allowing design to be its whole self, serious and playful at the same time.