Why don’t designers play anymore?

4 min read
Ashley vonClausburg
  •  Feb 19, 2019
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We were five digital designers wearing head-to-toe paint-protective onesies in a three-story warehouse in Munich, set to partake in a paint-splattering, brush-flinging, group art activity called “layer cake.”

The result, yes, was a fun piece of art. But the “layer cake” exercise helped me realize something about most designers today: we’ve stopped playing—and it’s negatively affecting our work.

Building the layers

Layer Cake is the union of two Munich street artists, Patrick Hartl and Christian Hundertmark, who conduct an artistic dialogue through collaboration, with one artist putting down a layer of paint and handing it over to the other for his addition, with no explanation or direction. While the pair can continue this process for months, our experience was condensed into one afternoon.

The five of us were taking part in InVision’s inaugural Design Exchange, a program bringing together designers from companies around the world for a weeklong immersion in a city with an important design perspective.

We began by standing around a large table, where 16 canvases had been arranged to form one giant square surface for painting. Each of us was armed with a black paint marker. We were instructed to simply start painting, building off of each other’s work without planning.

There was a moment of silence and stillness before we descended unleashed, marker-to-canvas, paint flying across the table in a sort of jubilant frenzy that none of us could quite account for afterward.

Maybe it was that we were just craving that moment of creative freedom. Maybe it was that we finally felt comfortable with each other. Maybe it was just impossible to take yourself too seriously when dressed in a dope onesie. Whatever the reason, that was the moment I really connected with the other designers on the trip.

“It was putting into action the ‘yes, and’ feedback philosophy in the most tangible sort of way.”

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As career designers, we’re constantly focused on outcomes, problem-solving, and figuring out the best solutions. We rarely get the professional opportunity to be vulnerable, let go, and open ourselves to a process that we can experience without needing to control. I’ve found those limitations to be particularly true in front of other professionals who I respect and, between you and me, would like to impress.

We moved through that afternoon uninhibited by expectation—just adding paint to the canvas, taking what one of us had done and building on it, painting over it, or transforming it into something completely different.

Mostly, I think we relished the freedom to just enjoy the experience exactly as it was.

We are so rarely given the chance to collaborate with other designers in an environment where we don’t need to prove ourselves or take our skillset too seriously. But it’s only when you’re really honest and vulnerable are you able to make meaningful, lasting connections. Then you are really able to learn from each other, not just talk at each other.

“As career designers, we’re constantly focused on outcomes, problem-solving, and figuring out the best solutions.”

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Which is why Design Exchange was so different from simply going to a design conference. There was enough time and thoughtful interaction to allow us to really get to know our fellow designers; to then feel safe enough to open up about the real issues we’re facing without fear of judgment, and also to genuinely laugh and get to know each other.

It’s about taking the time for genuine interactions: setting aside team-building goals and going straight for the real talk. We needed the chance for no-stakes play, no-stress collab, to build real connection. It’s not about scheduling activities; it’s about setting aside goals.

“It’s only when you’re really honest and vulnerable are you able to make meaningful, lasting connections.”

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The piece resulting from our six-hour creative session may not warrant being hung in any gallery, but that wasn’t really the point.

After our painting activity, we had a term for whenever we all felt unencumbered and elated: going full layer cake. It was a feeling of openness that I have since been trying to recapture. I will always feel grateful that I got to experience it with some truly amazing designers.

Interested in joining the next Design Exchange? Click here to apply!

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