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Playful by design

OPINION: We all know the value of play when we’re young – it’s joyful, universal and well-understood. However, as adults, at some point, we stop. You don’t see office workers playing tag, creating a dance or swinging between branches, but play is scientifically proven to hold value across all ages. So, the question comes up – what happens if we were to design for a more playful world?

Studies show we’re inherently playful both as tamariki and adults. When we’re young, play fuels brain development, provides a strong foundation for problem-solving and creative thinking and helps develop social skills and teamwork. For adults, it’s additionally proven to relieve stress, increase happiness and drive creative solutions.

When we design for others it’s vital to look outside our world and what we know. Play isn’t just important but an essential gateway to how we work, think, and relate. It holds inherent value for products, experiences and brands.

Play in design

Some of the most interesting examples are being created through the lens of unstructured play. Traditional sports teach rules, structure and don’t encourage creative thinking. However, we know through research that kids’ worlds are highly expressive – in how they interact, the games they play and the content they consume.

Unstructured play within sports lives squarely in this world – setting a broad objective within a game-field scenario and allowing kids to use creative thinking and problem-solving to get there themselves – using key skills along the way. The Smash Play programme – which True developed with NZ Cricket – takes this approach, with 87 percent adoption in the first year amongst clubs and schools, creating behaviour change with end users and hitting high 83 percent enjoyment levels in year one.

Globally, the PLAYCE Skills Garden in the Netherlands uses play to challenge creative thinking and fundamental forms of movement. This is alongside work by Heroes Will Rise, a company that encourages exploratory play through industrial design. You can find their creations like the Rigmamajig and Imagination Playground in galleries and public spaces worldwide.

“There is a much greater value in imagining and inventing something on your own – than figuring out how to make it. The figuring out is critical, and it’s also the play.”

Cas Holman, Heroes Will Rise

In the adult world, we see art forms such as Concrete Poetry using play to convey broader meaning through graphical patterns and in the art world, works like Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show use a playful approach in design to provoke thought and challenge convention.

Play in product design

If a strong brand conveys meaning, connects emotionally, and design can make us feel, then where does that leave product design?

Product design can, in fact, be a vehicle for brands to create emotional attachment through playful features, tone or personality.

Branding doesn’t always resonate with our emotions in digital spaces, but connecting to users through playfulness allows users to open up because they’re having fun and can express themselves. This can be a subtle but effective way to drive adoption and create feeling through the process of completing a task.

Read more: Brand codes and politics: how the little things say so much

When you have no connection, the Google Chrome T-Rex running game provides a playful moment of escapism and a functional way to pass the time, and the Experiments with Google Hub show how their AI products work through play, helping humanise and educate.

We can see examples of its value when applied. In Denmark, Danske Bank had a rotating wheel in their banking app that didn’t serve much functionality, but when they replaced it, customers complained. Sharesies use playful design elements with their ‘running man’ in app – showing that even with serious financial transactions, a sense of play can support more functional elements.

Tonally, products use personality to convey a sense of play. Siri and Alexa tell jokes, can read a story and even sing to you if you ask nicely. This sense of personality to humanise will become increasingly important as AI powers more of our lives and interactions with it.

Where does that leave us?

Fundamentally, the value of play is inherent in all of us, with proven benefits no matter your age. Including play in your thinking around problem-solving, design and how brands show up can unlock a whole new toolbox to connect with users beyond the expected.

Sometimes it’s best to look beyond our experience and ask – how can we make the world a little more playful?

Harry Taylor is the Digital and Experience Director at True, an independent creative and digital experience agency.

Harry Taylor is Digital & Experience Director at True. A strategist with a focus on CX, design & branding.

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