What if your biggest breakthrough is just a step away from your desk? Could hopping up and down, clapping your hands, and shouting “Woo-hoo!” trigger the creative spark you’ve been searching for?
“There’s a fine line between ‘crazy ideas’ and ‘break-through ideas.’ If you stay away from the crazy ideas, you’ll have to accept that you may only be able to make small steps,” said Bobby Hughes of Aardvark Design Labs at our Seattle office last Tuesday.
We were thrilled to have the award-winning designer, educator, and innovation consultant lead us through a “Serious Play” workshop as part of our Design Week celebration. Two hours of mind-stretching, outright hilarious improvisations—including hopping, clapping, and numerous woo-hoos—broke down our mental barriers between work and play and helped us see how our strengths as a team can help us meet daily creative challenges.
Experimentation and iteration are essential to our design practice at Ankrom Moisan, so we dedicated the week of Seattle’s Design Festival to the three cornerstones of our design culture: charrettes, pin-ups, and critique. “Bobby was able to take those three important tenants and mask each in the non-intimidating guise of play,” said Jennifer Sobieraj Sanin, Managing Design Principal.
From language, to drawing and movement, the immersive exercises gave us the freedom to put aside our work minds, expand our creative flexibility, and ultimately deepen our connections as a team.
The first opening exercise was simple: Count 1, 2, 3 back and forth with a partner, clap your hands, hop in the air, and dance a little jig. In just five minutes, nearly everyone was smiling, transported to a mental state of focused-yet-relaxed collaboration.
“Most of the world is just so fearful of judgment. Play is seen as this separate thing from work, but it’s really crucial for learning and finding new things,” says Hughes.
So, we tested our growing confidence in a second phase: practicing vulnerability and becoming mindful of what it takes to connect and ‘make your partner look good’ with the entire group in the larger circle. As designers, we collaborate each day to bring projects to life and serve our clients, but it’s equally important to pause and reflect on how we, as teams, combine our strengths. The workshop gave us the opportunity to do just that, with moments to pause, reflect, and interpret our experience after each activity.
A few observations: The best teammates are highly aware of others. Direct eye contact is a secret superpower for making sure you have communicated your message effectively.
“People will have their own experience,” says Hughes, and will reach their own lessons from each exercise. “I try to practice the same thing that I’m teaching, which is being flexible, responding to the moment, and saying ‘yes’ to people’s offers. I continue to learn by doing this—all the time. It’s what play is about and why it is so important. In dynamic organizations, we must be flexible and constantly open to learning.”
We continued in similar evolutions: partner exercises followed by group sessions, gradually progressing through communication channels of language, drawing, and movement. Along the way, “we were able to see how different our interests and perspectives are,” said Claire Schatzle, Graphic Designer, “but that it’s likely we have just as many things in common.”
Even subtle word choices make the difference between communicating, building upon, or breaking down an idea. In the workshop, Hughes brought our awareness to that in a new twist on the classic game of telephone. We transformed our brainstorming line into a channel for inclusive—yet focused—creativity by trading dismissive words with a “Yes, and…” and other additive responses.
“The “Yes, and...” exercise forced us to not only hear the words someone said, but also consider the message and acknowledge the person behind the words,” said Dave Sheridan, Intern II. “I’ve already seen interactions in the office in which stopping, acknowledging someone else’s thought, and building on the thought made for a more cooperative and concise interaction.”
Drawing is a fundamental tool for us as designers to express ourselves, a basic building block for bringing ideas into the world. The partner and group drawing exercises in “Serious Play” challenged our tendencies toward perfectionism and ownership. A new, exciting tension surfaced when we sketched together with a partner—and especially as a large group. “You could have a vision and have it go an entirely different direction. It’s a feeling of excitement for the unknown—it became something I never could have done on my own,” said Katie McGough, Project Designer.
“I went very abstract and based on gut instinct in the drawing exercise, whereas my partner approached it from a more rational sense,” said Annabelle Nikolov, Intern II. “My partner is also on my project team, so these little insights are really valuable and will help us work and create successful projects together in the future.”
Like drawing, play is a muscle that takes practice. We can improve our ability to be good, creative collaborators by investing our time and attention to exercising it. This is why we celebrate and support a culture of design at Ankrom Moisan. What began as an annual celebration of design has grown into weekly and monthly design events across each of our offices in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. Forums for curiosity and open learning help us voice new ideas, enjoy the unique perspectives of our coworkers, and dive deeper with design.
The workshop was the perfect invitation for quirkiness and fun to kick off a special Design Week celebration. From language, to drawing and movement, the immersive exercises gave us the freedom to put aside our work minds, expand our creative flexibility, and ultimately deepen our connections as a team. We gained new, valuable insights that have already improved the way we appraise each other’s ideas and relay our own.
We’ll keep making time for play throughout the year, in each of our offices, because as we discovered in the workshop, it makes us better collaborators. And as a firm of over 300 people, our best work happens when our 300 voices speak as one.