Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play

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This is a guy named Bob McKim.

He was a creativity researcher in the '60s and '70s,

and also led the Stanford Design Program.

And in fact, my friend and IDEO founder, David Kelley,

whos out there somewhere, studied under him at Stanford.

And he liked to do an exercise with his students

where he got them to take a piece of paper

and draw the person who sat next to them, their neighbor,

very quickly, just as quickly as they could.

And in fact, were going to do that exercise right now.

You all have a piece of cardboard and a piece of paper.

Its actually got a bunch of circles on it.

I need you to turn that piece of paper over;

you should find that its blank on the other side.

And there should be a pencil.

And I want you to pick somebody thats seated next to you,

and when I say, go, youve got 30 seconds to draw your neighbor, OK?

So, everybody ready? OK. Off you go.

Youve got 30 seconds, youd better be fast.

Come on: those masterpieces ...

OK? Stop. All right, now.


Yes, lots of laughter. Yeah, exactly.

Lots of laughter, quite a bit of embarrassment.


Am I hearing a few "sorrys"? I think Im hearing a few sorrys.

Yup, yup, I think I probably am.

And thats exactly what happens every time,

every time you do this with adults.

McKim found this every time he did it with his students.

He got exactly the same response: lots and lots of sorrys.


And he would point this out as evidence

that we fear the judgment of our peers,

and that were embarrassed about showing our ideas

to people we think of as our peers, to those around us.

And this fear is what causes us

to be conservative in our thinking.

So we might have a wild idea,

but were afraid to share it with anybody else.

OK, so if you try the same exercise with kids,

they have no embarrassment at all.

They just quite happily show their masterpiece

to whoever wants to look at it.

But as they learn to become adults,

they become much more sensitive to the opinions of others,

and they lose that freedom and they do start to become embarrassed.

And in studies of kids playing, its been shown

time after time that kids who feel secure,

who are in a kind of trusted environment --

theyre the ones that feel most free to play.

And if youre starting a design firm, lets say,

then you probably also want to create

a place where people have the same kind of security.

Where they have the same kind of security to take risks.

Maybe have the same kind of security to play.

Before founding IDEO, David said that what he wanted to do

was to form a company where all the employees are my best friends.

Now, that wasnt just self-indulgence.

He knew that friendship is a short cut to play.

And he knew that it gives us a sense of trust,

and it allows us then to take the kind of creative risks

that we need to take as designers.

And so, that decision to work with his friends --

now he has 550 of them -- was what got IDEO started.

And our studios, like, I think, many creative workplaces today,

are designed to help people feel relaxed:

familiar with their surroundings,

comfortable with the people that theyre working with.

It takes more than decor, but I think weve all seen that

creative companies do often have symbols in the workplace

that remind people to be playful,

and that its a permissive environment.

So, whether its this microbus meeting room

that we have in one our buildings at IDEO;

or at Pixar, where the animators work in wooden huts and decorated caves;

or at the Googleplex, where

its famous for its [beach] volleyball courts,

and even this massive dinosaur skeleton with pink flamingos on it.

Dont know the reason for the pink flamingos,

but anyway, theyre there in the garden.

Or even in the Swiss office of Google,

which perhaps has the most wacky ideas of all.

And my theory is, thats so the Swiss can prove

to their Californian colleagues that theyre not boring.

So they have the slide, and they even have a firemans pole.

Dont know what they do with that, but they have one.

So all of these places have these symbols.

Now, our big symbol at IDEO is actually

not so much the place, its a thing.

And its actually something that we invented a few years ago,

or created a few years ago.

Its a toy; its called a "finger blaster."

And I forgot to bring one up with me.

So if somebody can reach under the chair thats next to them,

youll find something taped underneath it.

Thats great. If you could pass it up. Thanks, David, I appreciate it.

So this is a finger blaster, and you will find that every one of you

has got one taped under your chair.

And Im going to run a little experiment. Another little experiment.

But before we start, I need just to put these on.

Thank you. All right.

Now, what Im going to do is, Im going to see how --

I cant see out of these, OK.

Im going to see how many of you at the back of the room

can actually get those things onto the stage.

So the way they work is, you know,

you just put your finger in the thing,

pull them back, and off you go.

So, dont look backwards. Thats my only recommendation here.

I want to see how many of you can get these things on the stage.

So come on! There we go, there we go. Thank you. Thank you. Oh.

I have another idea. I wanted to -- there we go.


There we go.


Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Not bad, not bad. No serious injuries so far.


Well, theyre still coming in from the back there;

theyre still coming in.

Some of you havent fired them yet.

Can you not figure out how to do it, or something?

Its not that hard. Most of your kids figure out how to do this

in the first 10 seconds, when they pick it up.

All right. This is pretty good; this is pretty good.

Okay, all right. Lets -- I suppose we'd better...

I'd better clear these up out of the way;

otherwise, Im going to trip over them.

All right. So the rest of you can save them

for when I say something particularly boring,

and then you can fire at me.


All right. I think Im going to take these off now,

because I cant see a damn thing when Ive -- all right, OK.

So, ah, that was fun.


All right, good.


So, OK, so why?

So we have the finger blasters. Other people have dinosaurs, you know.

Why do we have them? Well, as I said,

we have them because we think maybe playfulness is important.

But why is it important?

We use it in a pretty pragmatic way, to be honest.

We think playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions.

Helps us do our jobs better,

and helps us feel better when we do them.

Now, an adult encountering a new situation --

when we encounter a new situation we have a tendency

to want to categorize it just as quickly as we can, you know.

And theres a reason for that: we want to settle on an answer.

Lifes complicated; we want to figure out

whats going on around us very quickly.

I suspect, actually, that the evolutionary biologists

probably have lots of reasons [for] why we want

to categorize new things very, very quickly.

One of them might be, you know,

when we see this funny stripy thing:

is that a tiger just about to jump out and kill us?

Or is it just some weird shadows on the tree?

We need to figure that out pretty fast.

Well, at least, we did once.

Most of us dont need to anymore, I suppose.

This is some aluminum foil, right? You use it in the kitchen.

Thats what it is, isnt it? Of course it is, of course it is.

Well, not necessarily.


Kids are more engaged with open possibilities.

Now, theyll certainly -- when they come across something new,

theyll certainly ask, "What is it?"

Of course they will. But theyll also ask, "What can I do with it?"

And you know, the more creative of them

might get to a really interesting example.

And this openness is the beginning of exploratory play.

Any parents of young kids in the audience? There must be some.

Yeah, thought so. So weve all seen it, havent we?

Weve all told stories about how, on Christmas morning,

our kids end up playing with the boxes

far more than they play with the toys that are inside them.

And you know, from an exploration perspective,

this behavior makes complete sense.

Because you can do a lot more with boxes than you can do with a toy.

Even one like, say, Tickle Me Elmo --

which, despite its ingenuity, really only does one thing,

whereas boxes offer an infinite number of choices.

So again, this is another one of those playful activities

that, as we get older, we tend to forget and we have to relearn.

So another one of Bob McKims favorite exercises

is called the "30 Circles Test."

So were back to work. You guys are going to get back to work again.

Turn that piece of paper that you did the sketch on

back over, and youll find those 30 circles printed on the piece of paper.

So it should look like this. You should be looking at something like this.

So what Im going to do is, Im going to give you minute,

and I want you to adapt as many of those circles as you can

into objects of some form.

So for example, you could turn one into a football,

or another one into a sun. All Im interested in is quantity.

I want you to do as many of them as you can,

in the minute that Im just about to give you.

So, everybody ready? OK? Off you go.

Okay. Put down your pencils, as they say.

So, who got more than five circles figured out?

Hopefully everybody? More than 10?

Keep your hands up if you did 10.

15? 20? Anybody get all 30?

No? Oh! Somebody did. Fantastic.

Did anybody to a variation on a theme? Like a smiley face?

Happy face? Sad face? Sleepy face? Anybody do that?

Anybody use my examples? The sun and the football?

Great. Cool. So I was really interested in quantity.

I wasnt actually very interested in whether they were all different.

I just wanted you to fill in as many circles as possible.

And one of the things we tend to do as adults, again, is we edit things.

We stop ourselves from doing things.

We self-edit as were having ideas.

And in some cases, our desire to be original is actually a form of editing.

And that actually isnt necessarily really playful.

So that ability just to go for it and explore lots of things,

even if they dont seem that different from each other,

is actually something that kids do well, and it is a form of play.

So now, Bob McKim did another

version of this test

in a rather famous experiment that was done in the 1960s.

Anybody know what this is? Its the peyote cactus.

Its the plant from which you can create mescaline,

one of the psychedelic drugs.

For those of you around in the '60s, you probably know it well.

McKim published a paper in 1966, describing an experiment

that he and his colleagues conducted

to test the effects of psychedelic drugs on creativity.

So he picked 27 professionals -- they were

engineers, physicists, mathematicians, architects,

furniture designers even, artists --

and he asked them to come along one evening,

and to bring a problem with them that they were working on.

He gave each of them some mescaline,

and had them listen to some nice, relaxing music for a while.

And then he did whats called the Purdue Creativity Test.

You might know it as, "How many uses can you find for a paper clip?"

Its basically the same thing as the 30 circles thing that I just had you do.

Now, actually, he gave the test before the drugs

and after the drugs, to see

what the difference was in peoples

facility and speed with coming up with ideas.

And then he asked them to go away

and work on those problems that theyd brought.

And theyd come up with a bunch of

interesting solutions -- and actually, quite

valid solutions -- to the things that theyd been working on.

And so, some of the things that they figured out,

some of these individuals figured out;

in one case, a new commercial building and designs for houses

that were accepted by clients;

a design of a solar space probe experiment;

a redesign of the linear electron accelerator;

an engineering improvement to a magnetic tape recorder --

you can tell this is a while ago;

the completion of a line of furniture;

and even a new conceptual model of the photon.

So it was a pretty successful evening.

In fact, maybe this experiment was the reason that Silicon Valley

got off to its great start with innovation.

We dont know, but it may be.

We need to ask some of the CEOs

whether they were involved in this mescaline experiment.

But really, it wasnt the drugs that were important;

it was this idea that what the drugs did

would help shock people out of their normal way of thinking,

and getting them to forget the adult behaviors

that were getting in the way of their ideas.

But its hard to break our habits, our adult habits.

At IDEO we have brainstorming rules written on the walls.

Edicts like, "Defer judgment," or "Go for quantity."

And somehow that seems wrong.

I mean, can you have rules about creativity?

Well, it sort of turns out that we need rules

to help us break the old rules and norms

that otherwise we might bring to the creative process.

And weve certainly learnt that over time,

you get much better brainstorming,

much more creative outcomes when everybody does play by the rules.

Now, of course, many designers, many individual designers,

achieve this is in a much more organic way.

I think the Eameses are wonderful examples of experimentation.

And they experimented with plywood for many years

without necessarily having one single goal in mind.

They were exploring following what was interesting to them.

They went from designing splints for wounded soldiers

coming out of World War II and the Korean War, I think,

and from this experiment they moved on to chairs.

Through constant experimentation with materials,

they developed a wide range of iconic solutions

that we know today, eventually resulting in,

of course, the legendary lounge chair.

Now, if the Eameses had stopped with that first great solution,

then we wouldnt be the beneficiaries of so many

wonderful designs today.

And of course, they used experimentation in all aspects of their work,

from films to buildings, from games to graphics.

So, theyre great examples, I think, of exploration

and experimentation in design.

Now, while the Eameses were exploring those possibilities,

they were also exploring physical objects.

And they were doing that through building prototypes.

And building is the next of the behaviors that I thought Id talk about.

So the average Western first-grader

spends as much as 50 percent of their play time

taking part in whats called "construction play."

Construction play -- its playful, obviously,

but also a powerful way to learn.

When play is about building a tower out of blocks,

the kid begins to learn a lot about towers.

And as they repeatedly knock it down and start again,

learning is happening as a sort of by-product of play.

Its classically learning by doing.

Now, David Kelley calls this behavior,

when its carried out by designers, "thinking with your hands."

And it typically involves making multiple,

low-resolution prototypes very quickly,

often by bringing lots of found elements together

in order to get to a solution.

On one of his earliest projects, the team was kind of stuck,

and they came up with a mechanism by hacking together

a prototype made from a roll-on deodorant.

Now, that became the first commercial computer mouse

for the Apple Lisa and the Macintosh.

So, they learned their way to that by building prototypes.

Another example is a group of designers

who were working on a surgical instrument with some surgeons.

They were meeting with them; they were talking to the surgeons

about what it was they needed with this device.

And one of the designers ran out of the room

and grabbed a white board marker and a film canister --

which is now becoming a very precious prototyping medium --

and a clothespin. He taped them all together,

ran back into the room and said, "You mean, something like this?"

And the surgeons grabbed hold of it and said,

well, I want to hold it like this, or like that.

And all of a sudden a productive conversation

was happening about design around a tangible object.

And in the end it turned into a real device.

And so this behavior is all about quickly getting something

into the real world, and having your thinking advanced as a result.

At IDEO theres a kind of a back-to-preschool feel

sometimes about the environment.

The prototyping carts, filled with colored paper

and Play-Doh and glue sticks and stuff --

I mean, they do have a bit of a kindergarten feel to them.

But the important idea is that everythings at hand, everythings around.

So when designers are working on ideas,

they can start building stuff whenever they want.

They dont necessarily even have to go

into some kind of formal workshop to do it.

And we think thats pretty important.

And then the sad thing is, although preschools

are full of this kind of stuff, as kids go through the school system

it all gets taken away.

They lose this stuff that facilitates

this sort of playful and building mode of thinking.

And of course, by the time you get to the average workplace,

maybe the best construction tool we have

might be the Post-it notes. Its pretty barren.

But by giving project teams and the clients

who theyre working with permission to think with their hands,

quite complex ideas can spring into life

and go right through to execution much more easily.

This is a nurse using a very simple -- as you can see -- plasticine prototype,

explaining what she wants out of a portable information system

to a team of technologists and designers

that are working with her in a hospital.

And just having this very simple prototype

allows her to talk about what she wants in a much more powerful way.

And of course, by building quick prototypes,

we can get out and test our ideas with consumers

and users much more quickly

than if were trying to describe them through words.

But what about designing something that isnt physical?

Something like a service or an experience?

Something that exists as a series of interactions over time?

Instead of building play, this can be approached with role-play.

So, if youre designing an interaction between two people --

such as, I dont know -- ordering food at a fast food joint

or something, you need to be able to imagine

how that experience might feel over a period of time.

And I think the best way to achieve that,

and get a feeling for any flaws in your design, is to act it out.

So we do quite a lot of work at IDEO

trying to convince our clients of this.

They can be a little skeptical; Ill come back to that.

But a place, I think, where the effort is really worthwhile

is where people are wrestling with quite serious problems --

things like education or security or finance or health.

And this is another example in a healthcare environment

of some doctors and some nurses and designers

acting out a service scenario around patient care.

But you know, many adults

are pretty reluctant to engage with role-play.

Some of its embarrassment and some of it is because

they just dont believe that what emerges is necessarily valid.

They dismiss an interesting interaction by saying,

you know, "Thats just happening because theyre acting it out."

Research into kids' behavior actually suggests

that its worth taking role-playing seriously.

Because when children play a role,

they actually follow social scripts quite closely

that theyve learnt from us as adults.

If one kid plays "store," and another ones playing "house,"

then the whole kind of play falls down.

So they get used to quite quickly

to understanding the rules for social interactions,

and are actually quite quick to point out when theyre broken.

So when, as adults, we role-play,

then we have a huge set of these scripts already internalized.

Weve gone through lots of experiences in life,

and they provide a strong intuition

as to whether an interaction is going to work.

So were very good, when acting out a solution,

at spotting whether something lacks authenticity.

So role-play is actually, I think,

quite valuable when it comes to thinking about experiences.

Another way for us, as designers, to explore role-play

is to put ourselves through an experience which were designing for,

and project ourselves into an experience.

So here are some designers who are trying to understand

what it might feel like to sleep in a

confined space on an airplane.

And so they grabbed some very simple materials, you can see,

and did this role-play, this kind of very crude role-play,

just to get a sense of what it would be like for passengers

if they were stuck in quite small places on airplanes.

This is one of our designers, Kristian Simsarian,

and hes putting himself through the experience of being an ER patient.

Now, this is a real hospital, in a real emergency room.

One of the reasons he chose to take

this rather large video camera with him was

because he didnt want the doctors and nurses thinking

he was actually sick, and sticking something into him

that he was going to regret later.

So anyhow, he went there with his video camera,

and its kind of interesting to see what he brought back.

Because when we looked at the video when he got back,

we saw 20 minutes of this.


And also, the amazing thing about this video --

as soon as you see it you immediately

project yourself into that experience.

And you know what it feels like: all of that uncertainty

while youre left out in the hallway

while the docs are dealing with some more urgent case

in one of the emergency rooms, wondering what the hecks going on.

And so this notion of using role-play --

or in this case, living through the experience

as a way of creating empathy --

particularly when you use video, is really powerful.

Or another one of our designers, Altay Sendil:

hes here having his chest waxed, not because hes very vain,

although actually he is -- no, Im kidding --

but in order to empathize with the pain that chronic care patients

go through when theyre having dressings removed.

And so sometimes these analogous experiences,

analogous role-play, can also be quite valuable.

So when a kid dresses up as a firefighter, you know,

hes beginning to try on that identity.

He wants to know what it feels like to be a firefighter.

Were doing the same thing as designers.

Were trying on these experiences.

And so the idea of role-play is both as an empathy tool,

as well as a tool for prototyping experiences.

And you know, we kind of admire people who do this at IDEO anyway.

Not just because they lead to insights about the experience,

but also because of their willingness to explore

and their ability to unselfconsciously

surrender themselves to the experience.

In short, we admire their willingness to play.

Playful exploration, playful building and role-play:

those are some of the ways that designers use play in their work.

And so far, I admit, this might feel

like its a message just to go out and play like a kid.

And to certain extent it is, but I want to stress a couple of points.

The first thing to remember is that play is not anarchy.

Play has rules, especially when its group play.

When kids play tea party, or they play cops and robbers,

theyre following a script that theyve agreed to.

And its this code negotiation that leads to productive play.

So, remember the sketching task we did at the beginning?

The kind of little face, the portrait you did?

Well, imagine if you did the same task with friends

while you were drinking in a pub.

But everybody agreed to play a game

where the worst sketch artist bought the next round of drinks.

That framework of rules would have turned an embarrassing,

difficult situation into a fun game.

As a result, wed all feel perfectly secure and have a good time --

but because we all understood the rules and we agreed on them together.

But there arent just rules about how to play;

there are rules about when to play.

Kids dont play all the time, obviously.

They transition in and out of it,

and good teachers spend a lot of time

thinking about how to move kids through these experiences.

As designers, we need to be able to transition in and out of play also.

And if were running design studios

we need to be able to figure out, how can we transition

designers through these different experiences?

I think this is particularly true if we think about the sort of --

I think whats very different about design

is that we go through these two very distinctive modes of operation.

We go through a sort of generative mode,

where were exploring many ideas;

and then we come back together again,

and come back looking for that solution,

and developing that solution.

I think theyre two quite different modes:

divergence and convergence.

And I think its probably in the divergent mode

that we most need playfulness.

Perhaps in convergent mode we need to be more serious.

And so being able to move between those modes

is really quite important. So, its where theres a

more nuanced version view of play, I think, is required.

Because its very easy to fall into the trap that these states are absolute.

Youre either playful or youre serious, and you cant be both.

But thats not really true: you can be a serious professional adult

and, at times, be playful.

Its not an either/or; its an "and."

You can be serious and play.

So to sum it up, we need trust to play,

and we need trust to be creative. So, theres a connection.

And there are a series of behaviors that weve learnt as kids,

and that turn out to be quite useful to us as designers.

They include exploration, which is about going for quantity;

building, and thinking with your hands;

and role-play, where acting it out helps us both

to have more empathy for the situations in which were designing,

and to create services and experiences

that are seamless and authentic.

Thank you very much. (Applause)

The Description of Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play