Why designers should keep playing

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We were five digital designers wearing has-mat style onesies in a five-story carpark in Soho, preparing to partake in a paint-throwing, brush flinging group art project called “Paint Cake”.

The result was as you can expect, a piece of “art” that you wouldn’t necessarily hang on a wall, but was a hell of a lot of fun to create. But the “Paint Cake” helped me realise something about the designers of today: we’ve stopped playing, and it's having a draining impact on our work.

The concept behind a Paint Cake is simple - it’s sold in as an artistic dialogue through collaboration, with one artist putting down a layer of thrown paint, and then handing it over to another person to add their addition, with no guidance or explanation. The pair can continue like this for months, but thankfully our experience was condensed into one afternoon. Effectively it’s an adult version of the kids game (insert kids game here).

We began by standing around a large table, upon which 16 canvases had been bolted together to form one giant square of terrifying blank space, primed for painting. Each of us began, armed with only a simple black paintbrush (with the promise that more colours would be available to us after we started). We were instructed to simply start painting, building off and around each others work without any instructions or plan.

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After a tense moment of silence and taught stillness, one brave soul made the first mark, after which we all descended, unleashing paint upon the canvas, colours flying across the table in a sort of jubilant frenzy that none of us could claim ownership of afterwards.

As we peeled off our paint sodden has-mat suits, we decided it was our group craving at the moment for creative freedom. Maybe this created an environment that we all felt comfortable enough with each other, or perhaps it’s just impossible to take yourself too seriously when dressed in a crime-scene clean-up onesie. Whatever the reason, we all admitted that the workshop acted as a great bonding experience and a release of our creativity.

As career designers, we are always focused on the outcomes, problem-solving, and finding the best solution, the quickest. We rarely get the professional opportunity to be vulnerable, to let go and open ourselves to a process that we can experience without needing to control. We all admitted to finding those limitations to be particularly true when we are working with designers we respect, or between you and I, would like to impress.

Mostly, we felt we relished the freedom of the experience to enjoy our creativity as it was.

It can be a rare thing to be able to collaborate with other designers in an environment where we don’t need to prove ourselves or take our skillsets too seriously. But it’s only when we are truly honest and empathetic that we can make meaningful and lasting solutions. That’s when we are able to learn from each other, not just talk at each other.

We found that given the chance outside of team-building goals and going straight into the real talk, we relished the opportunity for no-stakes play, no-stress collab to build real connections and begin to understand how we worked in relation to each other. It’s not about scheduling activities; it’s about setting aside your goals.

Our collective art piece may not warrant being hung in any gallery any time soon, but that wasn’t really the point of the whole thing. 

After our group paint war, we had a term for whenever we felt truly uninhibited by the design process, or elated with some genuinely innovative work: getting paint caked. It’s a feeling of openness and creative freedom that we are trying to keep in all our work and help share with our friends and clients along the way.