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.”


About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.