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Design Principles of Play


In my work designing toys I strive to be mindful of the people being designed for while imagining new play experiences. Although I began with a career in toy design, I have since branched out. Yet I have since incorporated play as an approach in my design toolbox.

All states of mind for shape our perception and play is a powerful mindset. While toys and games are designed to be played with, play itself is a behavior which is widely viewed as a fundamental learning process for survival.  When a playful state is activated, boundaries of possibility are explored, social relationships supported, and survival skills are practiced. However while those benefits are certainly valuable, animals of all types are incentivized to play because it is simply enjoyable.

With this thinking in mind, last year while developing the project District of Play, I began to study the many different types of playful experiences available to us and observed what they share in common. Out of this research I distilled three fundamental design values that can add a playful twist to any project:

Imagine for a moment the jiggle of an icon, the spring in a pen, roller blades, or a sprinkler. The list goes on, but when motion is involved, interaction and movement are encouraged and a fun moment (or two) usually follows. That’s the power of incorporating motion. It may only be simply a transfer of energy, but adding movement to a design is a sure way to enhance the fun in any activity.

Ever get the urge to see what’s around the corner, try something new, or wonder what if? Have you ever noticed a button that was begging to be pushed or peeled through a flipbook?  Experiences that catch our eye, also capture our curiosity. Like a bug to a light, once we are engaged, it can be difficult to move on, until that mental itch is satisfied. In practice it means that aesthetic considerations should aim to entice,  draw people in and provide a satisfying conclusion.

What do dancing, multiplayer games, jazz, and real-time virtual whiteboards have in common? They are interactions between people over time and space. Whether digitally or physically, collaborative experiences enable people to interact and create something together. How might people be enabled to use your design in a collaborative way? What roles can be played? Are there actions people take that are complementary and build trust?

When it comes to incorporating play into products, services or experiences, consider these values as sign posts to encourage playful behaviors and while what people find fun is certainly subjective, a smile or a laugh is an objective indicator. However I think Cas Holman says it best, “if we can all play together, maybe we can all live together” so play on!