CIID10: Celebrating a Decade of Serious Play

Thursday, 15th Sep 2016

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Article by Carl Alviani

For an unfamiliar visitor walking into the UN City complex or Langelinie Pavilion during last week’s CIID10 celebration, it would be easy to think you’d accidentally stumbled upon two different conferences happening simultaneously.

One of these conferences was about challenges, complications and endless hours of work. “Celebrating 10 years of not sleeping” read one of the cheekier captions projected on the screen during the closing party, and there’s a clear reason why: in keynotes, panel discussions and lightning talks, we saw an endless procession of human problems that need solving. The world is warming, cities are flooding, South Sudan needs safe drinking water, and roads to connect people with markets and medical services. Blind kids need to learn how to code too. Refugees need to know where it’s safe. Entrepreneurs still don’t have access to capital–especially, it seems, if they’re more concerned with helping people than increasing shareholder value. Fixing these problems takes effort, and effort is in good supply.

There’s always been a kind of fervor that permeates the CIID network, shared by IDP students, advisors and Nest startups alike. We’re a community of unusual passions, equally motivated by creative expression and a desire to improve the world. Judging by the presentations of the past four days, in fact, it may even be that creative expression is ultimately the less important of the two. This is what makes a design school different from an art school, after all.

But concurrent with all of this was a second thread–a second conference, almost–that was all about play. Learning through play, teaching through play. Generating and testing ideas through play. We need to play more, we heard, and we need to take its outcomes seriously. We should embrace our side projects and personal quirks, not just as opportunities for expression, but as a way of building useful skills and improving the quality of our ideas. We watched talks turn into slideshows of watercolors, and 50-person games of Rock/Paper/Scissors. We discussed the educational value of LEGO during an Impact Minds panels, and heard about the importance of taking on projects that are sufficiently useless. We laughed and cheered as Hololens demos turned us all into curious, gesticulating cyborgs.

From the inside, this collision of lightness and gravity feels natural. From the outside, it’s bewildering. Nowhere else on earth will you hear people so enthusiastically celebrate the value of not taking things seriously one minute, and emphasize the urgency of the world’s troubles in the next–in a venue hosted by the UN, no less. It can feel like a piece of dystopian sci-fi, rendered in the bright colors of a little kid’s cartoon.

But there’s a great reason for this strange combination: it works. Designers in general, and CIID’s creative network in particular, have gotten where we are because we’ve mastered play as a tool. We use it to suspend our preconceived notions of what’s possible, and to invite exploration. We use play as a motivator, with the power to engage the disinterested, and get the interested to obsess. We use play as the nucleus around which brilliant, unexpected solutions form, and to create a structure for making the unfamiliar accessible. We play seriously, in other words, and the outcomes of our efforts reflect it.

I was lucky enough to host a panel on Learning through Play during the Impact Minds portion of CIID10, which included an activity from Jesper Jensen of LEGO, illustrating one of the key elements of effective play. After receiving a small packet of just six LEGO bricks, each of the 40 or so participants was given one to build a duck. The results are astounding for their variety–no two results are identical–but also for the fact that they all look like a duck, more or less. Who knew there were so many ways to solve a single problem? It’s a powerful lesson in the potential of play to unearth unexpected solutions.

But dig deeper, and it holds another lesson. This particular exercise is something LEGO has been using for years as a demonstration tool, and it’s a highly refined game: one duck, six bricks, one minute, the same bricks each time. It’s very constrained, but constrained in exactly the right way.

And this is the challenge to designers of all stripes when we think about play: it’s wonderful to play, and let ourselves be frivolous and uncritical in the pursuit of new ideas, but it’s crucial to define the game we’re playing, and make sure it’s the right game. This dichotomy tells us to keep the needs of the world in mind and maintain a sense of urgency, even as we let our imaginations run wild. And to follow up our play with the expertise, collaboration and uncounted sleepless nights necessary to transform them into effective solutions.

This balance is deeply counterintuitive to much of the world–I originally trained as an engineer, and nothing in that curriculum remotely prepared me for this kind of mindset. But it’s also our best hope when facing problems whose traditional solutions are falling short. If there’s a call to action that came out of CIID10, it’s to play harder and play well. To play, in other words, as if the world depends on it.