Posts Tagged 'tinkering'

Designerly Play

This post comes a bit late, because it involved digging up a paper I found long ago and rereading it more carefully. Thus, this post is more about Resnick’s Tinkering chapter than about this week’s IDEO readings. When I read Resnick’s description of tinkering as a “bottom-up” approach that begins with “messing around with materials” that only later leads to the emergence of a goal from these “playful explorations,” I was reminded of a paper I read long ago, about a child messing around with paper, markers, and scissors.

Two years or more ago, I began engaging in a dialogue about children’s creativity with a grad student who was studying creativity at my undergrad institution. His work focused on adults, but he was intrigued by my idea of children’s creativity being a playful, open-ended process not necessarily characterized by an end product. I don’t remember if he found the paper, or if I did, in my attempt to strengthen my conversation with him. All I remember is that it struck a chord with me, and I just had to find it again, now that the tinkering chapter brought it to mind again.

And guess what? I did find it again! Here’s the URL for it:

The first thing you’ll notice about this article is how its title relates to our class. It’s called “Designerly Play.” It begins with two detailed examples of children’s play behavior that the author, Ken Baynes, believes involves aspects of the design process. These vivid stories are what stuck with me after all this time. I enjoyed reading them just as much the second time around. The first example involves an elaborate game the author played as a child with his friends and father, in which they all invented an island’s history, from its emergence from the sea, to its evolution of plant and animal life, to the arrival of humans, to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, to resource struggles over the building of cities and railway lines. No one ever won this game, though it was competitive. The second example is what came to mind when I read the tinkering chapter: the three-year-old boy who explored what it was like to cut paper, and then had an idea for a drawing based on the shape he had cut. The drawing turned into a shark, in which he cut a hole, and then it became a monster mask. He continued in this way for quite awhile, one idea leading to another, new “goals” emerging organically from playing around with the materials. Baynes says of this, “In adult design the synectics game that we played, with one idea leading unpredictably to another by creative association, is recognised as a ‘design method’.

The rest of the article is less interesting. I don’t think I even bothered to read it two years ago. Baynes relates different categories of play to aspects of the design process, such as relating “animistic” play–in which a child pretends that an inanimate object is alive–to the designerly ability to “imagine and understand what other people need.” The connections he draws, however, appear to be purely speculative, and, indeed, I think speculation was the purpose of the series of papers of which this one is a part. It would be interesting to see if there are any studies that actually provide some evidence that, for instance, animistic play leads to greater empathy. I agree, though, that play can be designerly.

I have many reasons for bringing up all this. The tinkering chapter was really inspiring, and reminded me of another inspiring paper I read, in which “tinkering” (though Baynes never calls it that) in play is characterized as “designerly.” I think this link between play, tinkering, and design is insightful, and shows what we’re all capable of if we let ourselves go a little bit. I’m not sure exactly what my final design project will turn out to be, but after the readings we’ve done so far, I’m quite sure I want it to be an intervention encouraging tinkering and playfulness. Now I’m wondering what other people think about the design processes we’ve discussed so far. Do they allow for playful tinkering? In particular, I think the IDEO process is extremely structured, and while it provides room for creative associations and encourages crazy ideas, I’m not sure those ideas will emerge if you’re so worried about adhering to all the steps they lay out for you. The solution is probably to simply not worry about all those steps, and I would imagine that, in most cases of using this toolkit, the process ends up looking far different from how it’s laid out in the handbook. What do the rest of you think?