Every Friday, Foursquare's Product Experience team has a mandatory art hour to envision creative solution to imaginary problems. One recent exercise: create a Pebble watch that tells time in non-minute-based units. After all, why measure time in hours when you can measure it in shots?

Another week, everyone got a picture of an item around the office, a clear plastic film to put over it, and was asked to draw a new interface. Jon Steinback, who heads up Product Design, got a photo of a urinal, which became a carnival game where you to aim for rows of ducks. Accurate "shooters" are rewarded with tickets to use the sink afterward.

This Mike Tyson recycling bin gets pissed if you mess with it.

It's definitely a little bit silly to imagine a bunch of adults sitting in a circle doodling--and getting paid for it.

But learning to flex brain muscles in different ways is a particularly useful skill for the Product Experience group.

"My job and the job of my team is to give a human side to what we're building," Steinback explains.

That means taking the engineer's products and translating them into terms that a broad subset of people will understand and relate to--like building a better elevator.

Of course, sometimes the exercise means dreaming up far-out scenarios for Foursquare's own product. Wouldn't you want your coaster to glow if your friend checked in at a bar you were at?

This exercise involved thinking about mundane objects in new ways. This team was assigned headphones and was asked to riff along two axes: random to predictable, and expensive to cheap. Some results? A bass suit that pumps sound straight into the heart, and a CD Walkman that only plays Ace of Base's "I Saw the Sign."

This temperature- and motion-detecting "Foursquare belt" would integrate real-time data with the Foursquare app, instructing lazy desk-sitters to "get off your ass!"

Challenges as simple as re-envisioning the humble sandwich are enough to ignite the imaginations of some pretty intense tech worker bees.

Their artistic skills are actually pretty good, too.

"All good software, especially social software, is an algorithm wrapped in anthropology," Steinback says. Which means interaction with other, you know, humans, is helpful.

This is a Swiss Army knife with Jeff Goldblum as one of the tools. We're stumped.

How Foursquare's Wacky Friday-Afternoon Art Hour Helps Employees Think Creatively

If you visit Foursquare on a Friday afternoon, you'll find the Product Experience group sketching out ways to turn urinals into carnival games or imagining how a 1,000-story elevator might work. Here's how it helps make Foursquare, the product, better.

Every Friday at 5 p.m., 15 or so Foursquare engineers, designers, and researchers step away from their computers for mandatory art time. Each week, a different person proposes a creative exercise: Create an object that helps people deal with sorrow, or design the elevator control panel for a 1,000-story building, for example. The next few minutes are spent executing, and then the group shares their creations.

It might not look like it, but that hour-long session serves as the weekly meeting for the Product Experience team. Instead of discussing upcoming projects or administrative items, Jon Steinback, who heads up Product Design at Foursquare, finds it more useful to spend the hour imagining. "They all think about very narrow problems within the scope of Foursquare's larger questions," he told Fast Company. This, he hopes, gets people to think beyond their individual tasks and learn how to focus on problem solving in a different way.

For a group of intense, tech worker bees, their artistic skills aren't terrible. They've also come up with some pretty clever ideas. I know this because Steinback saves and hangs the creations around the Soho office.

One week's challenge, for example, was to think up a new Pebble watch that tells time using non-minute based units. One person made a sundial; another measured time in shots. Another week, everyone got a picture of an item around the office, a clear plastic film to put over it, and was asked to draw a new interface. Steinback got a photo of a urinal: "I made this massive carnival game with rows of ducks running by, and there's a meter at the top to show you how well you're doing, and you have to do well enough to get tickets to wash your hands in the end." Talk about a novel first-person shooter game.

It's definitely a little bit silly to imagine a bunch of adults sitting in a circle doodling--and getting paid for it. But learning to flex brain muscles in different ways is a particularly useful skill for the Product Experience group. "My job and the job of my team is to give a human side to what we're building," Steinback explains. That means taking the engineer's products and translating them into terms that a broad subset of people will understand and relate to.

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His team, for example, writes all the copy. Engineers call all places "venues." His people turn those into words that users might actually utter, like "coffee shop" or "date spot." "All good software, especially social software, is an algorithm wrapped in anthropology," Steinback says. The better he and his team can think outside their tiny worlds, the more relatable Foursquare's products will be. Brainstorming for an hour each week teaches people how to do that.

Of course, that presumes that activity time indeed has its desired effect. Then again, even if it doesn't, it provides a much needed break on a Friday afternoon. "It shakes out the cobwebs," added Brendan Lewis, Foursquare's corporate communications director. "Everyone’s so intense."

[Photos by Celine Grouard, Fast Company]

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2 Comments

  • This is great! Thanks very much for sharing. I'm a huge fan of using artistic practice to improve the way we work, and I workshop some of this stuff with clients and friends. Something that feels really important is to create a safe space for people to feel comfortable experimenting with skills they either haven't used for ages, or don't typically associate with work. If you can make that work - then some fascinating stuff can follow on, as your article suggests.

    In case you and your readers are interested, here's a link to some more useful thoughts on how to make this stuff work well for you.

    http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/creative/developing-art-for-works-sake/