Serious play — the secret to eternal life

Paul Woods

By

Serious Play Paul Woods Espi

Image by Paul Woods

Recently I presented an illustration project I worked on with Erik at our weekly “Brainfood” sessions (a weekly event platform where we host speakers, both internal and external, for our staff and clients). The project was outside my day-to-day client work at the agency, and one that I undertook for both personal enjoyment and learning. Outside of my day-job at Edenspiekermann, I work on a range of other projects which fall into my “Play” category. For example, illustrating covers for a children’s book publisher, design promotional material for a small, non-profit theatre and, of course, write the occasional blog post on design and cultural topics such as the one you are reading at this very moment.

But with all that being said, the biggest kick I get always comes from client work. Despite the fact that I enjoy having a broad range of creative outlets, I am not an illustrator, I am not a writer, and I am certainly not an artist. I am a designer, and as such, I know that that the outlet for my primary skill of problem solving does not exist without a client brief. This is what I find most rewarding, as it is somethings that can add true value to a client, product, situation or society as a whole.

So, much to the dismay of my long-suffering girlfriend, why do I invest weekends and evenings into something that is always second place to my “real job”? Here’s why: I firmly believe that free, creative (or “serious”) play is the way that we learn. And, when if we lose the desire to learn, it’s probably time to high tail it out of the creative industry.

The importance of “serious play”

Paula Scher spoke about her relationship with “serious play” in a 2008 TED talk. Scher drew the distinction between serious play and solemn play. Serious play can be explained as the naive first time of learning something new and not being afraid to make mistakes in the process. Solemn play however, often occurring when one had to fulfill a requirement in a fixed way, or when one is asked to recreate a style or technique that was once “serious play”, but in a solemn manner. Interestingly solemn play can still often lead to a good result, but the naivety of learning, and playful exploration is gone.

To illustrate the difference between serious and solemn play, Scher gave some examples: “Children are serious, adults are solemn. Poker is serious. Jogging is solemn. New York is serious. Washington, D.C. is solemn”. You get the picture. In the summary of her TED talk, Scher discussed the “staircase of creative learning” — going from short and high steps in your teens and 20’s, the steps gradually become wider and smaller as one gets older. Learning naturally occurs fastest when you're younger and have the most to learn; as individuals grow older they become more solemn and willingness to new learning slows down.

Bringing serious play into our day-to-day work
Serious play and client work need not be separate things. Playing with new toys, tools and methods can become part of your process. For example, our digital team at Edenspiekermann is constantly searching for, and experimenting with tools, frameworks and ways to do things. Example of this: Using Keynote instead of Photoshop for visual design. Integrating new technologies into projects. Even when a standard tool seems perfect, still trying something else. Taking risks. Trying things and failing. And most importantly, not being afraid to fail. In this way, the team keeps fresh and relevant, both in methods and output.

Here’s some reasons why you should get off your ass and start playing today:

1. Learn new skills which can feed into client work
The most obvious reason: self initiated work allows us to learn new skills that can feed back into client work at a later stage. For example, taking Codeschool courses at night to build your personal site will quickly mean these new skills can feed into the next client project.

2. Play is the secret of eternal life (well, almost)
Play and learning keeps us young (at least mentally). We stay fresh and on top of our game by experimenting without fear of failure. Remember those days in college when you would pull all-nighters playing with the latest After Effects plugin you had “borrowed” from a friend. The learning leaps were huge back then, due in no small part to a lack of worries about money and clients. If we want to maintain these leaps of learning (and stay creatively young), then we must fumble about, make mistakes and play with new things without fear of failure.

3. It’s not work anyway
And let’s be realistic. If you’re a designer, developer, illustrator, writer, or generally any way creative, it isn’t work anyway.

Conclusion
If you’re in the creative industry you should be spending your nights, weekends and vacations on personal projects that you truly love. You should wake at night with the excitement of a new idea for a glyph for the “next-greatest-typeface-the-world-has-ever-seen”, a-genius-never-before-thought-of Sass mixin, a new blog post that will put Dickens to shame. Creative learning never stops. And serious play allows us to do it.

Useful links on this topic
Paula Scher’s TED talk on “serious play”
Jessica Walsh: Creative Play at TYPO Berlin 2013
Article on Jessica Walsh’s presentation at TYPO Berlin in German