I am certainly not the first person in the creative industry to bring to light the fact that we, as adults, can learn a thing or two from watching the incredible unabashed creativity of a child, but I believe it’s a lesson we should not forget. Bob McKim, a professor of design at Stamford University and a highly regarded creativity researcher, used to run a particular exercise in his classes and workshops. Essentially he would ask everyone in the room to grab a pen and some paper and draw the person next to them as quickly as possible, just a quick sketch of their face. The results were always the same; laughter, embarrassment, and a lot of people gushing “I’m so sorry!” Try doing this exact same exercise with kids and, to no surprise, it’s completely different. They have no qualms about parading their incredibly unique and brilliant piece of work to anyone that will look and listen. However, as they grow older, they begin to become much more attune to the opinions of others and begin to fear what their peers, or those around them, might say, stifling this creative freedom.
McKim believes the adult behaviour is proof that we, upon reaching maturity, are actually fearful about the opinions of our peers and are embarrassed about showing & sharing our ideas and that it’s this fear that causes us to be conservative in our thinking and creativity.
So what are some of the things we can keep in mind when tackling problems or when we’re next sitting down to the drawing board?
Why does a child always play with the giant box rather than the toy inside it? The toy may perform one or possibly two functions incredibly well and be extremely well engineered however; in addition, the box itself has infinite possibilities to a child’s mind and could be a plane, a tower, a cave, or whatever suits the child’s type of play. We have an incredible penchant for categorising everything we see, we must always define things and put them in order. This puts a terrible damper on what we think is possible or can be done, a child will ask “what is this” of course, but then they will ask “what are all the things I can do with it?” and set about experimenting, which brings me to the next behaviour.
Think with your hands
An idea cannot be truly shared until it has some type of physical form, a picture or sketch, a stack of blocks, a collage of images, or even just a mind map giving a seemingly random and crazy thought pattern or process an explainable diagram. For a child its called constructive play, and it’s really just the classic “learning by doing”, often carried out by bringing together a large number or found elements and morphing them together to represent an idea or solution. Building quick and easy prototypes is the quickest way to figure out of something works or not on a very basic level. Whether that’s an app, a product, or simply a user experience, building quick prototypes with what is at your disposal will make it much easier to explain what you're talking about than simply just words.
A lot of us will baulk at the idea of having to ‘role play’ and associate it with awkward job interviews at retail outlets while we were at uni trying to prove to the store manager that we can really ‘sell’ a t-shirt. But if you watch kids role play, what they are really doing is trying things out; like jobs, personas, identities, or even relationships. They try them on like an outfit to see how they work, how they feel, and if they like it or not.
If we as creatives are to truly understand a customer, end-user, or client then we must ‘put on their shoes’ and try it out. Only then can we really understand their viewpoint and what they really need.
This is obviously a very quick brush over the intricacies of how kids play and what creatives can learn from their play, but I highly recommend trying to shed some of your adult fears and self-editing. I think you’ll be surprised at what outcomes you find.
About the author
After completing a Bachelors degree in Industrial Design from Monash University, I started out as a contracting designer working in both graphic & product design before moving into a senior designer role at a firm in Melbourne. After 3 successful years in the industry I had a craving to make a change and recruitment was the next big challenge. I am a firm believer that creative and digital talent are the most valuable professionals we have at our disposal. As a keen “Enemy of Average” I love pushing the boundaries and problem solving.