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We begin our lives as curious creators. Perhaps you were once a finger painter, fort builder, or macaroni jewelry designer. This play was serious business. You were taking what you know— for example, that couch cushions work fabulously to build forts or that yarn is better than dental floss for stringing jewelry— and testing it. What’s the balance point of the cushions? How many threaded macaroni shells would break even thick yarn? You took what you knew, worked with it, tested its boundaries, and tried something else when it failed. This is design. 

When did we stop valuing— and practicing— this way of engaging with the world? As we grow into adulthood, we are rewarded for knowing the singular answer: the right answer to tests, the right social responses, the right processes to follow. We prioritize the certainty of known facts over the exploration of the unknown.

This attachment to the certain, the known, and the absolute has a time and place in our working lives. But not at the beginning of a design phase.

If we were to start out the design phase believing we knew everything, whether that’s because we did some great discovery or because we’re self-confident, our design and testing would be reduced to a confirmation of knowns. And that would leave us little wiser than when we started. We’d risk losing the insights that come with delving into the unknown, and finding out whether our design idea—when tested with participants— delivers, delights, or frustrates. We’d risk losing the feedback from participants that helps us know whether to keep moving forwards or change course.

Good design demands the kind of relentless curiosity and joyful exploration of the unknown that we practiced in our childhood years. Our younger selves wouldn’t stop to rest until we found out how many cushions stacked up together before the fort tumbles? How many threaded macaroni shells until the yarn snaps? We knew instinctively to design and test iteratively to get to the best fort, the best macaroni necklace.

Design invites you to re-learn and re-discover how to tinker, test, and iterate your way to the best version of a product, service, or system. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

This section will help guide you back to the practice of serious play.