Making Work Play or Making Play Work

The Tom Sawyer Approach

Some adults tend to think of play as something for children; for busy grownups with more important things to do, play is a waste of time. But in my experience as a designer and entrepreneur, the opposite is true. Incorporating play into the workplace is an excellent way to solve problems and increase productivity – and it’s fun.


Two heads are better than one. Three? Even better. When we were children, we learned so much from playing with others, including how to negotiate and cooperate. As adults, it’s easy to forget these crucial lessons.

At Umbra, our team of international designers allows us to lead on a global level. In the studio, every final product is a group effort, the result of constant collaboration. When we’re looking for new recruits, “plays well with others” is a crucial requirement. Building a successful team is about more than simply filling seats based on talent; for any business, finding team players is key.

Creative people enjoy working on teams and interacting with like-minded people. When it comes to team design, there is always a great deal of argument and encouragement – and this always leads to new ideas.

You know how it works. You take your idea into the group and they respond to it. Maybe someone suggests trying it upside down, or changing the material, or adding a lever – who knows? But as you synthesize the input, your product begins to shape into something better and smarter than before.


Consider the idea of a playground. It’s a space where we play, whether figuratively or literally. At Umbra, we have a studio specifically intended for designers to experiment. Here, they can play with ideas and materials. Organized play doesn’t only yield better design – it makes work fun.

We brought this idea of a playground abroad during visits to our partner factories in China, Thailand, and India. The uninteresting products on display there demonstrated the technical capabilities and materials of the factories. But I’ve always enjoyed taking things apart, reconfiguring their elements, and toying with them. Most products we had in the works were pre-designed with little latitude for change, but the best and some of the most profitable designs were the products of play: those that had been improvised and sometimes even created on the spot. During our travels, we would invent ideas, and the factory shop would make prototypes overnight to play with the next day. Play is not just a method; it is part of the job.

While many industries enjoy the benefits of a creative environment, most aren’t so lucky. But even the most traditional corporations are beginning to discover room for play in their day-to-day operations. Many companies are quick to add colorful couches and ping pong tables to their space, but these are merely cosmetic. Google is at the fore of this trend and is famous for providing creative workspaces with fancy cafeteria food and other perks. Enterprises all around the world have created comfortable meeting spaces, breakout rooms, and gaming areas where staff can chill out, chat, and stimulate their creative juices. The idea is to provide spaces to encourage conversation and exploration in a way that gets employees to ask more creative questions.

However, real play cannot happen in designated spaces; there is always a need to use external spaces, talent, and stimulants. As Mark Rhodes of explained in an article for The Guardian in 2016, “The most successful businesses are those that engender creative thinking and develop environments where everyone generates ideas, has a voice, asks questions, and challenges the norm.” It should not be limited to the cafeteria.


As designers, our toys are getting better all the time. When I started my career, I doodled and sketched with markers and paper pads. Now I use sketchbook software on my smartphone.

There’s a huge range of technology available to help us doodle. We can use programs to play with datasets on our computers. When we’re satisfied with the results, we can simply print out the design in 3D. We can turn our playful musings into material objects with the touch of a button.

And of course, there’s always LEGO. We all played with building blocks as kids, and some of us are still stacking. In the studio, designers use building blocks of a sort: the physical components of our design projects, which we manipulate and reorganize. This kind of hands-on experimentation makes the process fun and playful and often leads to the formation of entirely new concepts.

When our creative and playful minds are engaged, we forget that we’re working. We lose ourselves in a project, task, or challenge; we become immersed in the act of doing. This state is a breeding ground for great ideas and work.

Enter the Business of Play

These days, companies are struggling to be customer-centric. They are imagining new applications of both old and new technologies, and they are trying to define new ways to reconfigure their business and redesign their business models. It takes more than a few creative people or a few offsites to achieve these goals. Companies need to inspire a sense of play in every function – moving beyond playful marketing and product design and into meaningful play for operations and information technology departments alike. Playing within a singular business function is good, but the best outcomes emerge from playing across functional units and disciplines.

As a business leader, you must ensure that there are spaces and mechanisms for play set up within your business, mechanisms that go beyond informal spaces for co-working and siloed instances of experimentation. Don’t let oversimplified success metrics and measurements stranglehold the results out of your team. You need to foster a deeply playful culture that inspires an environment of customer-centric and breakthrough thinking. It is time companies learn how to play seriously.

the author

Paul Rowan

Paul Rowan is the cofounder of Umbra and CCO at