Okay, I know, I swore I was out, but only the kind folks at Core77 and hundreds of thousands of dollars could entice me out of my live-blogging retirement. So after working back up to my blog flexibility with five excruciating weeks of deep phalanges stretches, here I am, in Pasadena, California, at the third Art Center Conference, Serious Play.
And boy is it ever nice over here in the Wind Tunnel. Maharam fabrics unfurling from the ceilings, cushy Steelcase chairs, even tables for us live-bloggers so we don't walk home with MacBook battery burns on our upper thighs. Our cruise ship director Chee Pearlman takes the stage with images of the patron saints of fun design, if you will, who will be looking over us on our three days here. Charles and Ray Eames on a motorcycle, Tibor Kalman holding a gun-printed issue of Colors to his head, Ettore Sottsass and that kickass red Olivetti typewriter. She then introduces the first of many conference surprises. OMG a double-Dutch techno dance break! It's Bring It On with jumpropes!
Keynote speaker Tim Brown* of IDEO is sure to mention first and foremost that he sure does love to play with Legos®. (My question is, how much did they pay for that mainstage product placement?) Brown has some audience participation for us to do. First, everyone is given 30 seconds to draw their neighbor. Lots of laughs and lots of "I'm sorry, you aren't really that fat/ugly/alien-like." Brown tells us that David Kelley started IDEO around the concept of play, so he could work with his friends (now numbering 550) and have fun at the office. Big creative companies always have something that defines their corporate culture and IDEO's is their Finger Blaster, a Wham-O-like foam slingshot device. That they invented. Of course. And wouldn't you know it, but we all have one taped underneath our seats. So...giant targets go up behind him (Is this more product placement? They're sponsoring tonight's after party.) and Brown is getting pelted with hundreds of Finger Blasters! Wheeee! Now this is serious play!
Kids love boxes, Brown says, because a Tickle-Me-Elmo only does one thing, while a box could do anything. It's the habit of exploration and looking for lots of possibilities that makes us creative. An academic named Robert McKim--now officially my favorite academic of anything-- studied the effect of psychedelics on creative in the 70s. He gathered 27 men from engineering, physics, math, architects, and furniture designers and gave them mescaline. He asked them to find out how many uses they could create for a paper clip. But along the way they also figured out some other stuff, like the design of an electron accelerator. "It wasn't the drugs," says Brown. "It was the fact that the drugs shocked them out of the normal way of thinking." Uh huh. And the purple coyote in the corner that told them how to design the electron accelerator.
A Western-raised first grader spends 30% of their time in construction play. In the grown up world, Brown says David Kelley calls this "thinking with your hands" or building multiple prototypes very quickly. Brown contrasts video of kids playing with blocks with Frank Gehry building models (you can definitely see the resemblance; they both really need to comb their hair). And then he shows shots of IDEO engaging in role play to gain empathy for their audience. Um, how cool is it to work at IDEO? It looks like you get a preschool art cubby full of craft supplies and then you get to dress up like nurses and ghosts and play bakery and store with large human-scale Playmobil setups. Oh, and infiltrate hospitals with video cameras strapped to your head.
The only caveat to all this play, however, is that play has rules, and you can't play all the time. So you've got to trust those around you to play and trust those around you when you want to be creative. Therefore, the rules for creativity (and this conference) are as follows:
· Exploration: Quantity
· Building: Think With Your Hands
· Role Play: Act it Out
· And put away your Finger Blasters when you're finished with them
Actually, I take that back, I'm offering $100 to anyone who can land one in John Hockenberry's lap during the rest of the conference.
*One very tiny item I have to include which I will do to prove this is live but also because it is related since Tim Brown was on the jury: The Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Awards have just been announced and I gotta give a big shout out to all the winners!