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  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

Play at work


31% Wool blog post on play in graphic design

Earlier this year I set a branding brief for a group of third year graphic design students, and as part of the project we visited a selection of London design studios, so that the students could gain experience presenting different stages of their work in a professional setting, as well as gaining valuable feedback from members of the industry. On our visits each studio talked about their method of working, and the theme of play came up in most instances. 


It made me ponder the importance of play in the creative process – do we all take it as a given? Afterall, it is the joy of the job. Of course many famous design tomes have focused on the connections between play, imagination and creativity, but perhaps for some designers the process of play can be overlooked, especially when we are faced with more critical considerations such as sustainability or accessibility in our work. I was interested to chat further with some of the designers we visited to ask more specific questions about play in their work. 


Thank you to Becky Campbell, Connor Edwards, Tom Cornwell and Jim Sutherland for sharing their views.


 

Becky Campbell


Becky Campbell

Becky is a senior designer at NB Studio, an award winning branding agency who specialise in strategic creativity. She graduated from LCC and went on to intern at a number of London’s top design agencies before landing at NB. At work she is driven by the prospect of helping clients disrupt the sector and defy industry norms. From being an NB intern herself, Becky now heads up the intern programme, aiming to create an inclusive environment where young designers are pushed creatively and grow in confidence during their time at the studio. She has also given guest lectures and talks at many universities, such as LCC, Falmouth, NUA and Kingston. 



Q1: Does play form part of your design process?

Becky: Seeing any creative brief as ‘play’ allows me to experiment, be curious, push creativity boundaries and think spontaneously. It’s what makes me excited to go to work everyday. When a new brief comes in I can’t switch off from it – I’ll be writing ideas down in my notes app on the bus home, doing quick doodles of logo ideas over the weekend, taking photos of anything I see out and about that has sparked an idea. For me the design process feels just like being a kid playing with Lego. 

At NB we make the process as collaborative as possible – sticking everything up on the walls and getting input and ideas from the wider team. The studio becomes a playground and I believe that’s how NB have continued to create amazing brands for so long. 


The attitude of play when designing shifts the focus from output to experimentation, which means I’m more likely to explore unconventional ideas and solutions. 

Q2: How can play enhance your work?

Becky: The attitude of play when designing shifts the focus from output to experimentation, which means I’m more likely to explore unconventional ideas and solutions. It allows me to think freely and push my creativity into unexpected places. There’s so much design stimulus on the internet today and I don’t think anything is ever truly original. But seeing work as play allows me to smash tried and tested design solutions together in unconventional ways or turn them on their head. 


Steve Jobs created one of the best (if not the best) brand of all time with this attitude. He encouraged his team to think outside the box, to challenge conventional norms, and to approach problems with a childlike wonder and curiosity. And that’s how you end up with a company called ‘Apple’ creating the most accessible and technologically advanced computers and phones. 


NB Studio project: GR8 People
NB Studio project: GR8 People

Q3: But can you play when you’re designing for a serious subject matter? 

Becky: Absolutely! With certain subjects there has to be a level of sensitivity and a serious message, but when a brief comes in I always aim to take a good idea and bend it and stretch it until it becomes a great idea. Just because the subject is serious, it doesn’t stop the team from experimenting and trying to push creative boundaries. 


At the end of the day the work always needs to connect with the audience and I believe there’s nothing more fun than human beings. When you create something that connects on a human level, with personality, wit and charm, then you’re more likely to leave a lasting impression. 

 

Connor Edwards


Connor Edwards

Connor is a senior designer at Jack Renwick Studio – a strategic design and branding agency based in Whitechapel, London. With a strong passion for ideas, based on real insights, Connor and the studio are always striving to make work that’s different and that makes a difference.


Connor also dedicates time to nurturing the next generation of creative talent through mentoring at D&AD Shift and The Arena Creative Community. He is also a part of the ‘Creative Industry Alliance’ who are focused on protecting the pipeline of diverse thinking in our industry.



Q1: Does play form part of your design process?

Connor: When I come into the studio in the morning, my first thought is not usually about ‘play’. That’s not to say it doesn’t come into my creative process. I’m always trying to look at things differently, I experiment with different tools, change my environment, read completely unrelated things, draw, write words, pace around and try lots of different things to break out of repetitive, unoriginal patterns of thought – that’s what play means to me.

My dad always jokes that I ‘colour in for a living’ which is funny but in a world where creative services are often undervalued, I think it's important not to reinforce the impression that what we do isn’t serious or valuable and I think sometimes when we say ‘play’ we are at risk of selling ourselves short.


Jack Renwick Studio project: Parful Produce, Veg NI
Jack Renwick Studio project: Parful Produce, Veg NI

Q2: How can play enhance your work?

Connor: Where research can bring relevance, experimentation can create originality. When you pair deep understanding of a problem with curiosity and a desire to try new things, you often end up with a far more successful outcome. On the flip side, ‘playing’ without understanding the problem you are trying to solve can end up being

self indulgent and irrelevant to the client or the audience.


I think it’s important not to reinforce the impression that what we do isn’t serious or valuable and I think sometimes when we say ‘play’ we are at risk of selling ourselves short.


Q3: But can you play when you’re designing for a serious subject matter?

Connor: For me this is another example where the word ‘play’ becomes a little unhelpful because it can trivialise what we are actually doing – researching, exploring, experimenting, investigating, unpicking, questioning.


These activities have demonstrable value – everything we do to break out of dull thinking to create meaningful original work is all in service of solving our clients’ problems and building strong brands. This is as relevant when creating for a lighthearted subject matter as well as tackling serious issues.


 

Tom Cornwell


Tom Cornwall

Tom is a versatile and skilled middleweight designer with a blend of creativity and strategic thinking. He currently works at Bond and Coyne. Tom helps clients’ visions come to life through copywriting, digital design across brand identity and campaigns. 



Q1: Does play form part of your design process?

Tom: Play is definitely a part of my process. The idea generation part of the project is when I feel the most playful. We will often work in Miro and bring inspiration, sketches and mockups together. It feels like a space where the creative could go in any direction and that really excites me. 


The challenge with play is deciding when to be playful. You may have an idea that could be simple but the execution or the format could be when you decide to be playful. Equally you might have a really playful idea but the execution needs to be simple and clean.


‘Playful’ is not an aesthetic, it is a way of approaching a project. I actually think a serious subject is when you need to play the most.

Q2: How can play enhance your work?

Tom: The great thing about play is that it allows you to make mistakes. In the creative process you need to be prepared to try things and not always get the answer at the first time of asking. In our process we will have space to play. This might be a time where a lot of what we create isn’t used, but all it takes is for that one spark to steer the project in a way that we may not have even considered previously. Play makes sparks possible.


Q3: But can you play when you’re designing for a serious subject matter?

Tom: ‘Playful’ is not an aesthetic, it is a way of approaching a project. I actually think a serious subject is when you need to play the most. You will have lots of criteria to consider and for the final outcome you may not be playful but the way you approach it can be. You need to capture the audience's attention and imagination in most projects – and I don’t think this changes for a serious topic.

 

Jim Sutherland


Jim Sutherland

Jim founded Studio Sutherl& based on creative collaborations. He is currently working (and playing) on a new sustainable jean project, a bike company, a bouncy chair company, a Human Atlas of LA, the identity for Woburn Abbey, and a book about small elephants. He is a Professor in Design at Norwich University of the Arts and Vice Chair of the Typographic Circle. He runs regular work(&play)shops. He has judged D&AD, Design Week, and Creative Review. He has won 97 D&AD pencils. He loves design. 


More on Jim: LinkedIn; website; Instagram


Q1: Does play form part of your design process?

Jim: Play is central to how we work. We always scribble, cut, glue, make, pin up and discuss ideas freely when we work on projects. But, for me, Play is a state of mind as much as a practical process. 


Play is simply a process. It’s not about being humorous or light – it’s about generating creative flow. 

Q2: How can play enhance your work?

Jim: I believe the more play and joy we put into a project the more joy comes out at the other end for the client, for their clients and for the studio. The mind relaxes when we play and ideas flow freely and generously. It is a privilege to be a designer and I think we should try and love what we do. 


Q3: But can you play when you’re designing for a serious subject matter?

Jim: Yes. Play is simply a process. It’s not about being humorous or light – it’s about generating creative flow. It’s about freeing your mind and letting your conscious and unconscious mind roam. 


Wall at Studio Sutherl&
Wall at Studio Sutherl&
 

Thanks again to Becky, Connor, Tom and Jim for chatting with me.

Images courtesy of the studios.



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