Cultural Values That Will Make Your Office an Idea Factory

Jon Kolko shows how a change in corporate culture can lead to better design solutions.


This is the second essay in a three-part series by Jon Kolko, author of the new book Exposing the Magic of Design, on how to embrace design synthesis in your organization. Read the first part here.

In the first part of this series, I wrote about some immediate tactics you can take to encourage more design synthesis in your ethnographic research work — to help your teams make sense of chaotic and often incomplete or conflicting research data. In this next part, I’ll offer some suggestions and recommendations on changing the culture of your company to embrace the types of thinking that occur during synthesis. Arguably, this is a harder — but much more important — part of exposing the magic of design.


Building a Playful Culture

It’s unfortunate; when people speak about a playful office environment, they often describe Nerf darts, beanbag chairs, and funny hats. This stereotype, reinforced by lavish dot-com and web 2.0 spending, comes from poor consulting cultures that positioned juvenile behavior as necessary for those coming up with new and novel ideas. This only serves to reinforce the view of designer as magician — that somehow, while playing hours of foosball or XBox, designers are busy dreaming up the next Twitter, Apple, or Nike.

When people speak about a playful offices, they often describe Nerf darts.

In fact, playfulness in culture can be designed, and it doesn’t require any Nerf toys at all. But it requires some top-down qualities that will challenge traditional corporations and financially-strapped agencies. To be playful, an organization needs to embrace dynamic constraints, provide a runway to explore deviant ideas, and support and encourage flow.


Embrace Dynamic Constraints
While the word constraint has a negative tone, constraints act as the central construct for managing an otherwise overwhelming design activity. Designer Charles Eames described constraints as the qualities that contain a design problem, that mark its beginning and ending, and that illustrate to what extent the designer can affect change. Clients and technologies provide constraints, but the most useful and actionable constraints come from within the designer, and are often established during synthesis. A playful culture enables a designer to propose new constraints, and when the context of the situation demands — to the frustration of business owners everywhere — the designer can selectively ignore constraints entirely. Consider the following dialogue between a designer and a product manager concerning a web-based flow:

Designer: This is such a critical moment in the checkout flow that I highlighted the area in red and made the action abilities a bit larger than on other pages.

Product Manager: But that doesn’t fit within the parameters of the templates we’ve established and everyone has signed off on. It’s different from the other pages. Won’t it be inconsistent?

Designer: Yes, it is inconsistent. But I think, at this part of the flow, it’s important to call it out as separate.

Product Manager: I?m confused. When we developed the templates, you told me consistency was important. Now you are telling me it’s not important. Which is it?

Does the designer have the ability to establish constraints during synthesis? Are they empowered to make decisions like this? Most importantly, is there institutional support for the design team — have the directors and other managers enacted policy, procedure, and precedent that brings designers into a situation early enough to make this form of strategic recommendation?

Provide a Runway to Explore Deviant Ideas
Most businesses embrace an established hierarchy of decision making. This, theoretically, helps streamline important decisions, enforces accountability, and minimizes risk. In the context of creativity, while senior and director-level designers have refined their craft, it’s unlikely that they will have the “best idea” during a synthesis session, as synthesis is dependent on a breadth of experiences and unique viewpoints. To hold a playfully deviant point of view in the context of a serious design discussion allows a designer to explore divergent ideas, temporarily move the problem constraints, and expand the boundaries of what might be considered “appropriate” design decisions. A playful culture will provide a runway for those with deviant ideas to explore and refine the ideas — even when those ideas conflict with the vision of leadership. Sometimes this runway consists of permission; other times, it requires hours and financial support. But in all cases, support comes from above, by setting a tone and approach that embrace conflicting ideas.


Does your company culture afford freedom, flow and decision-making?

The notion of being playful is to appreciate and encourage divergent thinking and the shifting, flexing, and removing of constraints. Play is about exploring “what-if” scenarios; that is, dream states. Our lives, jobs, and compensation are so frequently tied to rational thought that we have often forgotten how to actively dream, yet these dreams — the ability to generate ideas, outlandish or otherwise — are at the core of design innovation. Design synthesis embraces this divergent dreaming.

Support and Encourage Flow and Autonomous Decision Making
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an optimal experience achieved during creativity that is an “automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.” Flow is literally the awake-dreaming state of mind that occurs when a designer is able to move through the space of a problem, holding many design “moves” in the mind at once, and suspending self-criticism while retaining idea-based judgment. To state the obvious, this takes time — blocks of undisturbed time. Conference calls, meetings, check-ins, standups, email threads, bug-lists, IMs, and other distractions can make it literally impossible to enter this flow-like state. A culture that recognizes the importance of flow can create a virtual barrier around a design team, where someone — usually a creative director — can play interference for the team by handling all of the tedium described above.

If someone’s making decisions during a flow-like state, they aren’t checking in with the team, and they aren’t waiting for consensus before moving forward. Simply, they are empowered to act autonomously — rejecting the increasing trend towards “socialization” of every decision made during the development of a product, system or service. Consider if your company culture affords this level of freedom, flow, and individual responsibility and decision-making.


Synthesis is the ability to make meaning out of data, and playfulness is a cultural phenomenon central to meaning-making. Play can be introduced, over time, into any organization. Start by embracing the dynamic nature of constraints, providing a runway for employees to explore deviant ideas, and supporting and encouraging flow and individual decision making.

During Part I of this series, I offered some tactics on how to jump into synthesis; in Part III of this series, I’ll describe the importance of celebrating bias in your design synthesis work. See you next week.


About the author

Jon Kolko is the founder and director of Austin Center for Design, a progressive educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and large-scale industry disruption