It’s well known that Charles and Ray Eames played with plywood for years, experimenting with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. They worked on plywood airplane parts, stretchers, and leg splints for wounded soldier in World War II before creating their iconic chair designs.
For those who earn their bread through the sweat of creative idea-making, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, says to take a page from a child’s playbook.
“When they are in an environment where they feel secure, children can be more creative,” says Brown in a 2008 talk at the Art Center Design Conference. “They don’t fear the judgment of their peers. They don’t apologize for crazy ideas or second-guess themselves.” He adds, “They’re the ones who feel most free to play.” Similarly, a workplace in which people are asked to be creative should feel safe and comfortable. It should be designed to help people feel relaxed.
Second, children haven’t learned to categorize so quickly, so they can create new connections and use everyday items in novel ways. The proverbial cardboard box on Christmas morning, for example, is limited only by imagination while the toy in the box can only do one thing. It was that child’s viewpoint that could see the ball on the roll-on deodorant and apply it to a computer mouse.
Third, young kids do “construction play” with blocks and tape and crayons. David Kelley, founder of IDEO, calls it “thinking with your hands.”
Fourth, kids play house and tea party and cops and robbers; they become super heroes or villains or imaginary creatures. Role play is a powerful way to imagine an experience. How is it possible to design airport seating or a cart for emergency-room nurses without viscerally knowing what is involved in each experience? “When a kid dresses up as a firefighter, he’s beginning to try on that identity,” says Brown. “We’re doing the same thing as designers. We’re trying on these experiences.”
“Finally,” says Brown, “at some point, you have to get serious again. Playtime is probably most useful for the initial generation of new ideas, but there’s also a time to identify and develop the best ideas like serious adults.”
Plywood model photo via: Library of Congress