Is playfulness the creative tool we’re not making the most of?

Polymath creative Karl Toomey outlines how playfulness has improved his practice over the years, and makes a case for why you should be using it too.


Headway East London
21 January 2020


When was the last time you let an otter into your office or home studio? When last did you involve an otter in a brainstorm, or ask one to tinker with an important project you were working on?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding “never”, your creative practice might be operating at a distinct disadvantage. You see, otters – although lacking in basic Adobe Creative Cloud skills and general office etiquette – possess a natural aptitude for something I believe can enhance almost any creative endeavour: playfulness.*

Generally regarded as one of the animal kingdom’s most playful mammals, otters approach life with a kind of pleasure-seeking inventiveness. It’s an approach to work (and life) I have been flirting with throughout my creative career, and one I think can benefit us human folk in a whole manner of personal, social and economic ways.

In the past, I’ve popped up here on It’s Nice That to discuss a few of my own otter-like projects. These include my rogue AI assistant Alice, net-busting fictional football hero Gary Goals, the Turing-test-joke-book that was Funny Business, and a set of scales that use celebrities as a metric called, surprisingly, The Celebrity Scales. For the most part, these were my own small ways of exploring big, contemporary topics — artificial intelligence, corporate culture, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous — while making my findings entertaining and accessible to broad audiences.

There are countless advice-driven think pieces on how to navigate the creative industry and the magic it takes to just think of a half-ingenious creative idea. Some note how a certain schedule can make room for creativity, or a “tidy desk, tidy mind” is the way forward. But for me, a playful approach is one that can enrich any creative project. And playfulness, I should point out, isn’t to be confused with humour or games, though those things can often be more than happily involved.

To me, playfulness, at its purest, is a form of imaginative exploration focused on enhancing how we experience life — our culture, our environments, our relationships, our wellbeing — in ways that are as surprising as they are joyful or rewarding. As we begin a new year in the creative industry, below I break down how the practice of playfulness can be approached, in the hope that it will not only improve the work you make, but also the way it feels to make that work too.

* Otters are not all fun and games. They have been known to gnaw at lovers’ faces during intercourse, so please be careful when approaching.

Hands-on Investigation

The first is to begin a project with what I think of as “hands-on investigation”. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, makes the following observation: “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play can help prepare us for an evolving planet.”

To me, this presents playfulness as a kind of open-minded, hands-on tool that can be used to unveil unexpected discoveries about how the world around us works. This is something I feel is becoming more and more important as our relationships with each other and the digital world become increasingly complex. For instance, a recent project that captures this sort of investigation is Flight Simulator, an app that invites users to explore the relationship they have to their smartphones. Described by its developers as “an ode to aeroplane mode”, the app allows downloaders to make a virtual journey between real airports across the globe.

The rub, however, is that for the duration of your flight, tracked in real-time, your phone must be switched to aeroplane mode, giving you what the app’s creator Laurel Schwulst describes as the best part of any flight: “peaceful solitude”. By playfully re-appropriating flight data and transporting the luxury/inconvenience of flying to a new context, Flight Simulator provokes users to consider both their device dependency and the open nature of flight data, in an elegant but revealing way.

Generous Invention

When it comes to invention and innovation, rather than being focused solely on efficiency and performance, being playfully minded involves focussing on opportunities to create more generous, rewarding experiences for other people. As Roger von Oech, a toymaker and creative consultant to Apple, IBM and Intel once said: “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”

A great example of how this approach can be put into practice is Short Edition’s installation at a London Underground station. Known as The Short Story Station, if you pass by Canary Wharf tube, visitors can break up their day by receiving a short story from what is, in essence, a vending machine pumping out reading material for harried commuters.

Free of charge, and with reading times of one, three, or five minutes, these micro-fictions have been written specifically to accompany travellers as they navigate peak-time public transport. By imbuing a sense of surprise and empathy into a setting that’s usually incredibly monotonous and impersonal, you can easily see Short Edition’s work as a project that highlights a kind of generosity arrived at through playfulness.

Joyful Cohesion

Ultimately, playfulness can help connect people in inspiring, joyful ways through design. Our main man, Dr Brown, again says: “Playfulness can be used as a tool to navigate conflicts… a tool to tap into common emotions and create a sense of cohesion… it can allow us to express our joy and connect most deeply with others.”

In my eyes, this shines a light on the ability of playfulness to create harmony, pleasure and a shared sense of direction. New York-based art and design studio Playlab embodies this in its work, particularly through its project Plus Pool. Beginning a decade ago as a fun, speculative Kickstarter project proposing the construction of a giant plus-shaped swimming pool in the sea near Manhattan, it has now evolved into a kind of platform for citizens, authorities and engineers to come together and actually make the pool a reality. It’s a project where, from the start, ambitions were unifying. But I still find it inspiring to see an initiative that brings people together in such a positive, enterprising way; especially when so much current public, political discourse feels so negatively charged – and outdated.

In his book, Play Matters, Miguel Sicart, an associate professor at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University Copenhagen, sums up the world of play beautifully: “Play is the force that pulls us together… It is a way of explaining the world, others and ourselves. Play is expressing ourselves – who we want to be, or who we don’t want to be. Play is what we do when we are human.”

Much like a design process, I see playfulness as an approach to creativity. While there’s an academic distinction between play (the activity) and playfulness (the approach), for the purpose of this article and the daily act of a creative’s idea generation, I’ve combined them into one notion. And it's a notion that prioritises hands-on investigation, generous invention and joyful cohesion in order to enrich the world for everyone. In this time of consistent uncertainty, play is a motive, a benefit and could even be the answer to creative problems.

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Further Info

Headway is a charity which promotes understanding of all aspects of brain injury and provides information, support and services to survivors, their families and carers. In addition, Headway campaigns to reduce the incidence of brain injury.

The illustrations in this article were created by members of Submit to Love, Headway East London's collective of artists who have survived brain injuries.

About the Author

Karl Toomey

Karl Toomey is a creative based in London via Dublin. In his work Karl has gone viral with a football loving Irish persona and published a book documenting his attempts to tell live chat services jokes. You can find out more about Karl via his AI assistant, Alice.

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