Choose play, choose life.

My son and I have a deal. If he gets to school before “circle time” I will stay and play with him until the bell rings to gather all the children. It’s a good deal for both of us. He gets extra mommy time and I get both kids to school on time (his sister’s school starts right before his does).

For the past few months, my participation in actual play time at school has been luke-warm. At first, my son loved playing with me in the mornings but now he’s made friends (he doesn’t need me there but never wants me to leave – and we did make a deal). The playtime has also moved outdoors with warmer weather and that means playing in the sandbox. If there’s one thing I hate, it is sand in my shoes. So I let him run off into the sandbox with his friends and his shovels and I hang around awkwardly watching the kids play and wishing I was somewhere else.

Today I made a different choice. When he handed me a shovel and beckoned me to follow him, I did. I stepped into the sandbox. And I entered a whole world I wasn’t really aware of. There’s a hiding place inside the play castle that I didn’t know was there, and the shovels are energy weapons of some kind, and there’s a grudgingly played game where one kid swipes stuff and buries it in the sand and the other kids have to find it and unbury it if they want it back. And there’s sunshine, and parents near the fence waving with love as they leave for the day, and imaginations shining at the far side of the sandbox too.

When we choose play, we choose life. Sometimes getting to the play means risking sand in your shoes, risking discomfort. But it’s so worth it.

When the bell rang, I gave my hugs and kisses and goodbyes. I felt better than I had in weeks. Instead of coming home and mindlessly zoning out for an hour (as I might do another day after kid drop off), I chose to write this article, and start another.

The really wonderful thing I want to share with you all is that play is not just reserved for these moments. Not just for dropping kids at school, or your Fridays out with friends or your weekends away. You can have play at work too. Your work CAN BE play. Even if your work is something very serious, even if you are grappling with critical world issues on a daily basis, you can be saving the world and PLAYING AT THE SAME TIME.

This is the work we’re playing at with Space for Play. If you want in on the conversation, drop a like on our Facebook page or join our mailing list below.

Design Thinking for System Intervention part 5: Testing

Now you have your prototype and are ready to test it out. How do you do this in an effective way so that you get all the information you need to move on to the next version?

Testing Prototypes

It’s amazing how things you think are obvious crumble in testing.

At some point you will need to start testing with your actual target audience, but for your early prototypes it’s fine to test with whoever you can scrounge up. Your friends and family will give you insight into larger design issues that you didn’t notice yourself. Then you will make changes and test with your target audience to find their unique concerns and dial in even tighter to what is going to work in the final product.

read more…

Things to be Thankful For

This has the potential to be a hard Thanksgiving for many of us.  Family gatherings invite political discussion around the dinner table, and the last few weeks have been exceptionally stressful in the political realm.  Just about everyone is feeling it and I know Thanksgiving is going to be tough, even if you find yourself surrounded by relatives who voted the same way you did on November 8th.

This is what I’ve learned from this election cycle: We, as a people in this country, are horribly under informed about the systems we take place in on a daily basis.  The last several months have seen me doing research on things I felt someone should have taught me (or taught me better) a long time ago.  How the Republican primary works, how the electoral college works, exactly what it is the President actually DOES.  I thought I knew these things, or that I at least had a vague idea but when it came right down to it I realized I know so little about how our country works.

How much do you know?  And why don’t we know more?  My daughter is in 3rd grade and all she really understands about the U.S. government is that there is a President, we vote to select them and some rudimentary ideas about the electoral college because she asked and my husband did his best to explain it.  I feel like this is information kids should be taught in kindergarten, and that civics should be part of every grade from kindergarten through high school graduation.

And not only do we not know enough about the government we live in, many people in the country suddenly realized on election night that they know very little about the motivations of millions of their fellow Americans.

Why bring this up on Thanksgiving?  On my Facebook feed recently I have noticed so many people – perfectly intelligent, otherwise completely compassionate people – calling huge swaths of our population stupid and ignorant.  But the fact is we are all way more ignorant than we should be.

Even if your world feels upside down right now, even if you are paralyzed by anxiety at the thought thanksgivingof cheerily showing up at Thanksgiving dinner only to have to survive hours of Uncle Frank over-sharing political views that make your skin crawl, try to see this as an opportunity to learn and practice.  Learn what you can about how things work, including the life experience of your Uncle Frank.  Practice compassion for anyone you don’t see eye to eye with.  They are living in a different reality than you are.  That doesn’t make them stupid and ignorant.  It just means you have a lot to teach each other.

And that is something to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving from Space for Play!

Design Thinking for System Intervention – Part 4: Make something!

I love Fall. And not just because “pumpkin spice” is my favorite flavor everything. Fall feels like a time of transition and growth. Change is in the air, and it is up to us to make sure that change is healthy and productive.

As for me, I am transitioning from a sick human to a healthy and productive one. Since the month of September found me so under the weather, I am officially extending Space for Play birthday month to October, with special events and discounts for all! You can find out more about this on our Facebook Page.

Now let’s move on to the next part of our System Intervention via Design Thinking series – and a perfect entry to a productive Fall: Make Something!

Image from:

Image from:

Step 3: Make Something
Now that you’ve gone through the ideation phase (brainstorming and doing research to come up with your core idea) it’s time to start making something.

Iterative design is amazing. Not only the process, which is fun and powerful and educational in it’s own right, but the very foundational concept is incredibly empowering and uplifting It means that nothing is broken – not the government, not our myriad unhelpful systems, not your (or my) life. We just haven’t arrived at the final, best possible, iteration yet and we can all have a part in getting us there.

read more…

Design Thinking for System Intervention Part 3: Research (it’s fun!)

Ok, you say.  All that brainstorming sounds fun and all but…what if we have no idea where to even start?  Or what if there are key questions we don’t know the answer to?

It didn’t occur to me until I was reading Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft that some people are actually freaked out by the term “research”.  For myself, the term always fills me with a thrill.  I love the excitement of the hunt and any chance to learn new things.  When the World Wide Web was new, I was one of those people following link after link after link for hours just absorbing all the information I could (and there weren’t very many funny cat photos on the internet back then).

For those of you for whom “research” fills you with dread however, don’t worry.  The kind of research we’re talking about here is not the deep involvement with a subject that made you cringe when you were writing term papers.  This is a more appetizer version, just intended to spark useful ideas that you can use in your design.  While you are conducting your idea-sparking expedition, keep more of those blank cards handy – you can write down more ideas to later add to your brainstorming “idea deck”.

Here are some ways to get some brain juice flowing.

The easiest way to start researching a topic these days is, of course, the magic duo of Google and Wikipedia.  Just put search terms related to your topic into these engines of knowledge and see what comes out.  The trick here is to not worry too much about what DOES actually come out.  You are not trying to learn everything about the problem you are designing for – not yet.  You are just looking for anything that sparks an idea.  Be open to what you read, take notes and save the link to anything interesting (I use Evernote) so you can find it again later.

Research hack: I am a very visual person and for me I often find it faster and easier to put a search term in Google and then click the “Images” tab that appears above the search results.  Generally speaking, human brains can parse pictures much more quickly than strings of text.  If I see an intriguing image I can click on it and then click the “visit page” button to read more.  Often though, images alone are enough to get my brain going.

Talk to people
Not quite as speedy as web research, but super valuable.  Sit down with someone whose opinions you respect, someone who has experience with this kind of work and/or someone who would be personally affected by your end project and talk to them.  Actually, what you really want to do is listen to them.  Tell them what your current thoughts are, what direction you think you want to take and where you are stuck.  And then listen carefully and take notes.  Chances are you will learn something new and some angle that had never occurred to you before will be revealed.

Field trips
Sometimes there’s no substitute for getting a change of scenery.  When your brain feels like it is in gridlock, taking yourself to someplace that might have something to tell you about your design challenge can be – literally and figuratively – a breath of fresh air.  Places to check out could be museums (there are so many weird little museums around, do a quick internet search and see what is near you), parks and zoos and beaches, stores/shops, or even just your favorite people-watching locations.  If your work is about a particular neighborhood or place, go there and wander around (being safe if you need to be safe of course).  A good idea is to make a list of interesting places to check out before you even dive super deep into idea generation.  That way if you get stuck you know to head out the door, and which direction to point your feet.

What is like this?  
When I worked as a digital game designer, one of the first things I would do with any design challenge is survey the field.  Looking for, and playing, games that were similar thematically or mechanically to what I was toying with would give me a ton of new ideas.  As a bonus I would be improving my overall knowledge of the field which in turn gave me ideas for future projects and made me more interesting to talk to at industry get-togethers.

Why the library is still better than the internet
Google is great, don’t get me wrong.  But the library is where it’s at, for this simple reason: it is full of books.  Let’s say you’re at home and you do a google search on panda bears.  You’ll get Wikipedia at the top, followed by a number of pages that all have basically the same set of facts about giant pandas.  Now you go to the library, do a search on their computer for panda bears and go to the section it directs you to.  You see some books on pandas which have similar content (but maybe more of it) to what you’d find on Wikipedia.  But then next to those books are some books about panda physiology, which you’ve never thought that much about before, and then a book about how pandas are linked to Chinese politics.  Walking further down the row you see books about other bears which gets you thinking about how these different species adapted to their different environments, etc. etc.  So whereas doing an internet search can help you find what you were looking for, browsing at the library can help you find things you never even KNEW you were looking for.

The key to doing idea research is to face it with curiosity and an open mind.  When you start, you don’t really know what you’re looking for.  If you think you know, you are in danger of closing yourself off to magical possibilities.  This is an exploration, an adventure, a treasure hunt for ideas.  Enjoy the journey, learn new things and write them down.  And always be ready to record your thoughts on a moment’s notice, in case you find just the right thing to send your brain into overdrive.

System Intervention Part 2: Exploring Ideas by Stacking the Deck

This series of articles exposes the design process and explores it as a model for creating intervention in systems. (This concept, that the design process can be used as an effective tool for designing and redesigning systems, is the foundation of Space for Play).

In our last article I talked about the first steps in the design process, analyzing constraints. Next we will move on to exploring solutions.

design_process2There are two interlocking processes I use for exploration of solutions. One of them is brainstorming and one is research. They go hand in hand, but this week we’ll focus on brainstorming.

Brainstorming is the act of coming up with ideas. Good brainstorming asks you to pump out a large volume of ideas, emphasizing quantity over quality. What this does is it gets your brain moving. The more ideas you put out there the more your brain will generate. And sometimes things you put out there that seem dumb at first glance you will see another way in five minutes when they suddenly make a lot of sense.

The Brain Shuffle

There are a gajillion effective brainstorming techniques, but my current favorite is something I’ve developed that I call the “brain shuffle”. The brain shuffle is a playful evolution of ideas such as Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping and the collecting phase in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.

All you need are some blank index cards, or blank playing cards (purchasable here) and some markers. Some space to play with the cards (like a large table or a clear space of floor) will help a ton as well.

What you will be doing is creating a deck of ideas. On a blank card, write down a possible idea. It doesn’t have to be very detailed. Whatever you write could just be a word or phrase, or even a drawing – enough to encapsulate the concept behind it. It’s just a mnemonic aid to help you remember what your idea was. Now put that card aside and write a new idea on a new card. Repeat, repeat. Set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes and generate as many cards as you can in that time.

Now that you have your deck of ideas, you can play with them. You can, for example, group them into smaller stacks according to how excited you are about them. You can put aside all the ideas that, at least at first blush, do not fit your established constraints. Or rank them by setting the cards out in a row from which would cost the most money to which would cost the least. It is very likely that, as you look through these cards, you will think of more ideas to add to the deck.

As you play with the cards you are looking for an idea that really grabs you. At this point, “feasibility” is not important. Which of your ideas makes your heart leap, sends an electric pulse through you, clenches your stomach with excitement? Put this one (or ones) on top of the deck. Or right in front of you. Or tape it to your bathroom mirror. This will form the basis of your first design experiment.


Brain shuffle in progress. One way to do this is to organize your cards into categories. Write the category on a card (I wrote them at the top of the card and then put the category cards sideways) and then you can stack your idea cards in the appropriate category.

Group Dynamics
The brain shuffle can be done very effectively with a group of people. Each person separately generates as many cards as they can in the same time limit, without talking. When the time is up, everyone can share what they have with the group. Duplicate ideas can be set aside, and then the cards can all be put on the table and played with in similar ways to what is described above.

Important rules for group brain-storming!
There are certain critically important rules that should be followed during group brain-storming. These rules, in addition to helping you stay friends after the brainstorming process, also help your brain-storming efforts be more effective by encouraging everyone to bring their unique voices to the session. The ideas can often be forgotten in the heat of exciting brain storming so it is a good idea to print them or write them in large letters and put them on the wall during the session.

1) Defer Judgement – there are no bad ideas!
When you are first revealing everyone’s cards, this is not the time to debate the merits of anything and you CERTAINLY don’t want to label anything as “bad”. Watch your body language. Remember that sharing ideas can feel very vulnerable. If people feel like they are going to be criticized they are less likely to contribute, and your project will lose out.

2) Stay on target
Side conversations about the Pokemon you found this morning on your way to the meeting can be fun, but save them until after the brainstorming session. Likewise it’s best to put away all electronics.

3) Go for volume
You’ve already generated as many ideas as you could individually. When everyone is sharing their cards, feel free to keep adding things. Your colleagues will almost certainly tell you an idea that sparks something new in yourself. (One nice thing about the cards is that you don’t have to interrupt anyone while they are talking to scribble down your new idea).

4) Keep it short
Brainstorming can be exhausting. Take breaks and watch for signs of people’s energy flickering out. When people are mostly quiet, or can’t stop reaching for their phones, it might be time to stop for the day. Honor the “shower effect”. Ideas need time to germinate in our subconsciousnesses. Often the best ideas will come the morning AFTER the brain-storming session, while people are in the shower or cooking breakfast or driving in the car. Allow space for these new thoughts to come forward.

The Brain Shuffle is currently my preferred method for brainstorming. It’s fast and easy, more flexible than mind-mapping on paper and doesn’t rely on electronics. It also doesn’t rely on wall-mounted whiteboards or giant paper stuck to a wall, which I’ve come to dislike for brainstorming because whoever is holding the dry erase marker becomes ruler of the whiteboard. Having everyone sit around a table democratizes the process. I also find that it is a good way to make sure we don’t miss out on the brilliance of some of the more introverted among us. Someone who is not comfortable speaking up in front of a room of people may feel ok about writing their ideas down silently and then taking a turn reading their cards out loud.

This certainly is not the only way to brainstorm, and I personally have used a whole mess of brainstorming methods over the years. Brain-storming itself is process agnostic. The important thing is that you are generating as many ideas as possible in order to give yourself the best chance at finding “the” one. (Or at least, “the” place to start).

“Ok”, you say. “All that brainstorming sounds fun and all but…what if we have no idea where to even start? Or what if there are key questions we don’t know the answer to”? Tune in next week for the other part of exploring solutions, brain-storming’s best friend: research!

Use of Design for System Intervention

There are a lot of hard things happening in this country right now.  A lot of hard things.  The cracks are showing in many of the systems we rely on every day.  In some cases, the cracks have already developed into gaping wounds.  What follows is the first in a series of articles that I consider to be my own, however small, intervention.  It is my hope that these words find you and inspire you to think about creating your own interventions, large or small.

Chewbacca flipping a table.

For when a drastic intervention is called for.

I talk a bunch about using the design process as a way of better understanding – and fixing – systems.  Let’s get deeper into what “the design process” actually means.  Or should I say – MY design process, as I’m sure this will overlap with, but not be identical to, the process of many other designers.

Step 1: Analyzing Constraints
What do we mean by constraints?  Constraints are simply this: anything which constrains the possible space of the design.  Constraints could be things like: the target audience, budget for the project, amount of time allowed until completion, specified theme, overall goal of the project or anything else either the client (or your team) have decided is important to them.

Constraints are awesome.  They allow you to really define the allowable space of your design and really focus in on what is most important about your project and what will make it different than other projects out there.

When performing a system intervention, constraints could be things like:
  • What the (fixed) system should do
  • Who is affected by the system
  • What resources are available to fix the system?
  • What parts of the system absolutely cannot be changed?  (e.g. key personnel, must be located in a specific city, etc).

Here is an important note about that last bullet point: Most systems, if they are already in effect, will not be able to just be tossed out wholesale.  It is really really hard to convince people to just throw something out and start over.  Instead, you will need to fix a broken (possibly incredibly broken) system.  If you are able to identify which parts of the system you will not be able to remove, you can work those parts into the intervention in the best and most productive way possible.  Fixing things can be much harder than making a new ideal thing from scratch, but think of it this way: we already know where (many of) the bugs are in the existing system.  With a brand new system we would have still have to uncover and debug.

Next time: Step 2: Exploring solutions

System Tinker’s Tuesday: Lumenaris

LumenarisWe build products that bring families together.

Some things I am a sucker for: Family run businesses, quality made sustainable and made in the USA products, clever and well crafted board games, nice people.

Victory through Industry box art

While at Kublacon, one thing I noted is that the number of small businesses in the dealer’s room keeps growing every year, and a big part of that is thanks to affordable laser cutting technology.  It is really a delight to see how companies are taking advantage of these machines to create high quality loose game pieces, beautiful boxes to help you better organize your game bits, and a number of other ways to make your gaming experiences even more physical and visceral.  And, of course, to create high quality new games that can be published in small batches but with delightfully tactile pieces to interact with.

Lumenaris is a family run company out of Morgan Hill, California (not too far from Space for Play HQ) producing – well a number of things, really.  Everyone in the family brings their own specialties to the table, and they have felt craft kits, cool buildable mechanisms (like a buildable wooden combination lock), beautiful hand turned sewing tools and some great games!  They are also dedicated to producing their goods sustainably and made-in-the-USA.

Excitement this week!

No blog post last Friday because I was getting ready for this week.  Which is going to be INSANE.  And AMAZING.

First up, I am giving a talk tomorrow evening for the IxDA (Interaction Experience Design Association) in San Francisco.  The topic is Game Designing the Future, and it is about how analog game makers (going back to Lizzie Magie; see embedded FB post below) have been using board games to rewrite the future.

Later this week, I am packing the family up and we are going to KUBLACON!  Its a huge multi-day gaming convention and, as I see it, a celebration non-digital game culture.  For us, it is kind of like going to Disneyland except that all our friends are there.

I am planning on tweeting our adventures this week so if you want to play along, follow me on Twitter: @SystemSleuth.


Discovering your Business Character, Game 3

Humans are incredibly visual animals. Now that you have your character role models and character traits, its time to put together a visual representation of your company’s character. The image you will be creating in this game will serve as a touchstone for your group, bringing together all the elements of your business character. Along the way, it will likely spark conversations with your team that will solidify just who your business is and what it stands for.

Who are We Anyway? (image from

Who are We Again?
(image from

Yes, this game is a bit artsy-crafty. Don’t panic if you don’t think of yourself as an artsy-crafty type, or if you had some sort of crafts related trauma as a small child. Playing with collage can be very liberating for those who don’t identify as “artistic”; you don’t have to draw or paint or anything that feels technical. You are just playing with images and ideas and relationships between things. In the end, it does not matter what your image looks like to the outside world. If you and your team resonate with what it represents, it will look good to you and it will be a useful tool to have around.

(And if you’d like some reassurance that creativity belongs to all humans and not just a few “talented” ones, I highly recommend this webinar by Anne Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Digital Media at University of Central Florida. Start at 4 minutes in to skip the intro).

Who are we Again? Game 3: Portrait of a Business
Number of Players: 1 – 6 (multiplayer rules are described, but this could be adapted to solo play)

Materials Needed:
Blank index cards
Printed images of character role models from game 1
List of character traits from game 2
Large paper, cardstock or poster board
Glue sticks
Sharpies (multiple colors might prove useful)
A stack of magazines – for best results, have every player bring 2 – 3 magazines from home of different types (business, finance, nature, housekeeping, etc.)
A timing device that can be set for 30 minutes

Set up:
Set aside 1 1/2 to 2 hours for this one, and make sure no one has a meeting immediately following it in order to have some comfortable wiggle room. You don’t want to rush it.

Have players write each character trait from game 2 on individual index cards.

Have all materials easily reachable by all players, without any one player dominating the space around the paper you will be assembling your collage on.

How to Play:
This may feel less “gamey” and more “artsy” than the other two games, but it requires collaboration in a noncompetitive way in order to produce the best results.

1. One player reads aloud the character traits that have been decided on in the previous game
2. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
2. Players look through magazines and pull out images that speak to them about the company, or for them relate to the character traits
important: Focus on the pictures, avoid reading any articles, and if you find an image you want just tear out the whole page – don’t worry about carefully cutting anything out right now
3. When the timer goes off, players put aside the magazines (or what’s left of them) and take turns showing the images they have picked, and explaining why they have picked them. Discussion about whether or not the images “work” for the group are encouraged

Once the images have been collected, the group should begin deciding which are important to include, which can be excluded, and which (if any) are redundant to each other. Then it’s time create your portrait! There are no real rules for this, but here are some suggestions:

1. Find a way to combine your images of your character role models that highlights the things your team most likes about each role model. For example, is your company smart like Einstein, Adaptable like a chameleon and strong like the Hulk? Maybe you put Einstein’s head on Hulk’s muscly body to which you add a chameleon tail and put some different colored chameleon scales on Hulk’s legs. (Yes, your character portrait may look a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, but that’s ok…)

2. Glue your character trait index cards to the collage (maybe cutting them down smaller if they take up too much space) near things they relate to, and draw arrows to those images. For example, your card that reads “Smart” could be glued near your Einstein’s head with an arrow pointing to his brainy noggin.

3. Use the images that team members collected from magazines to create a background, add accessories to your character portrait or otherwise embellish your image with symbols that are important to your team.

Post Game:
Make copies of the portrait and put it up in the workspace, in meeting rooms, anywhere you might need to see it. You can give this character a name if you like, or just name it after the company. Now you can say (for example) “What would Babsy Goldhart do?” (Babsy Goldhart is the name of my business character…more on that next time).

It’s important to note that, even though you have this image around, it is not meant to be static. In fact, if you have been paying attention to the tips section of all of these games, you will know that the first time you play the Who Are We Again? game series you should be creating a character based on how your business is NOW, today, warts and all. As a result, you may not like how your portrait turned out. You may feel like there are things about this new entity you’ve created that are wanting. Great! Because now you’re ready to do the games again, focusing on who your team WANTS the business to be. When you have these two characters, you can start to make a plan for how to get from here to there.

Your business character arc, if you will.

Have you played any of the games? Come chat about them on our Facebook Page, or leave a comment below!


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