LF04 - Play Not Prototypes

October 4, 2019

Play not Prototypes

“Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.” Charles Eames

Prototypes are useful for iterating on the present, but contrary to what you might think, they aren’t useful for adapting to the future.

Prototypes exist in today’s reality and usually work if and only if they can compete on a well-understood metric. Something the organization knows to be important today.

For example, if you can prototype a new checkout flow and prove it converts better than the existing one then the organization will adopt it quickly and easily.

But as anyone who’s worked on “innovation” knows - compelling prototypes that explore the future are frequently rejected by the organization. This is because they’re not better. Prototypes only work when they’re better.

In short, prototypes are good at doing existing things better. Iterating on the present. But what about the future?

Play at Work

Understanding and adapting to the future requires operating in places without metrics, of learning how to do new things, of creating new mental models for how things could work.

In short - playing!

When we began Little Futures we had a core idea of “arm’s-length” futures. This has two meanings - firstly it’s a way of looking at the world that replaces big visions of the future with a series of smaller futures that you can actually implement and work on today.

But “arm’s-length” futures is also about the idea of reaching out and touching the world around you! Of touching the building blocks and playing with them.

We don’t create the future out of abstract visions, we construct the future out of recombining the building blocks of today.

This is a theory of innovation and change rooted not in prototypes but play. A theory of change that looks a lot like… kindergarten.

Lifelong Kindergarten

The excellent book Lifelong Kindergarten introduces the idea of the Creative Learning Spiral:

I like to think of the creative process in terms of a Creative Learning Spiral. As kindergarten children play with blocks, build castles, and tell stories, they engage with all aspects of the creative process: imagine, create, play, share, reflect, imagine:

We believe this is a far more effective way to construct new futures and adapt to the world around you.

Creating a Culture of Playfulness

There’s a theory that you may be familiar with of the peactime CEO and the wartime CEO. That in times of rapid change what you need is not peacetime but wartime. Aggressive moves:

Peacetime in business means those times when a company has a large advantage vs. the competition in its core market, and its market is growing. In times of peace, the company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths. In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. - source

But as the speed of reality increases, many organizations feel in a constant state of wartime. This can lead to tension, stress and confusion. If things are constantly changing are we doomed to exist in an endless war?

We hope not. Perhaps instead of the peacetime/wartime CEO duality we should consider a third way: the playtime CEO.

In a world that is constantly changing, organizations require a playful theory of operations- small, creative explorations as an always-on mode of action.

So if you’re a business leader feeling the pressure of an accelerating world, consider creating a culture of playfulness:

Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude.” - again from the book Lifelong Kindergarten

In short we need to informalize our ideas about the future and replace our prototypes with play to create small worlds that allow new mental models of the world to emerge.

Welcome to Little Futures.


This week’s links all about games, toys & play.

The Glass Bead Game

If you’re interested in play and the grammar of games and culture then the book The Glass Bead Game is a highly recommended read:

“These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colours on his palette.”,

Play With Your Career

Turns out this theory of play works for careers too:

This is the story of how a weekend project and 276 lines of Python got me a job at Google. But it’s also a lesson I often tell - that side projects should be art or poetry. To be useful for your life they don’t need to be businesses.

And - in the networked world, launched projects are currency.

From Little Futures author Tom: f*&# yeah side projects

BERG Appreciation Society

Here at Little Futures we’re big BERG fans - a small studio that embodied the theory of toys and play.

First, from Matt Jones:

So, much simpler systems that people or pets can find places in our lives as companions. Legible motives, limited behaviours and agency can illicit response, empathy and engagement from us.

We think this is rich territory for design as the things around us start to acquire means of context-awareness, computation and connectivity.

As we move from making inert tools – that we are unequivocally the users of – to companions, with behaviours that animate them – we wonder whether we should go straight from this… to this:

Namely, straight from things with predictable and legible properties and affordances, to things that try and have a peer-relationship, speaking with human voice and making great technological leaps to relate to us in that way, but perhaps with a danger of entering the uncanny valley.

What if there’s an interesting space to design somewhere in-between?

Truly this whole piece is wonderful musing on the theory of plants, gardens and zoos.

Also from BERG, this Lamps project feels like a wonderful collection of toys that create shared worlds of exploration:

Here’s a really early sketch of mine where we see a number of domestic lamps, that saw and understood their context, projecting and illuminating the surfaces around them with information and media in response.

And.. hey let’s just go all in on the BERG fan-train this is what Jack from BERG is up to now - a little shared world of a…. Talking avocado?

The world’s first action-loving, mystery-solving, crime-fighting avocado.

This week, Tom is researching new forms of masculinity for a men’s media brand and Brian is interviewing founders.


Little Futures is a research and consultancy studio from Brian Dell and Tom Critchlow to make futures thinking less abstract and more grounded - to shine a light on what we call “arm’s-length futures.”

With a background in creative strategy, media, startups & consulting we are experimenting with building a new kind of research studio to navigate new kinds of futures - Little Futures.

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