Games for Designers & Non-Designers: Context, Ritual, & Play for Design Thinking

We lead diverse teams through collaborative design processes to solve problems.

As facilitators of design sprints, we adopt methods and activities that empower everyone to participate creatively and collaboratively. Sometimes that can be tough for people, especially if its something they arent used to doing. So how do you get??analysts, lawyers, writers, developers, designers, CFOs, and everyone else in between on the same page?

Games. The best way to get everyone on board quickly is through games more specifically through setting context, rituals, and overall play of ideas through quick productive activities.

These often come in the form of what most people call icebreakers. But we dont think these activities should just be at the beginning of a meeting or session to make everyone feel comfortable with each other. Thats important, but it also shouldnt be the sole purpose for these activities.

Other than getting people comfortable or in the mode of thinking and working with each other, these quick activities (should) do the following:

  1. Establish context for work that will be done or that has been completed to start a shared mindset
  2. Help people ideate without worrying about bad ideas its not how well you can sketch, but how well we can communicate ideas to each other
  3. Create ongoing rituals for longer processes to help deepen the meaning of the work and establish a shared culture
  4. Break inertia and re-energize the team
  5. Have fun ??because design sprints are tough!

Providing Context to Help Set Expectations

At the beginning of design sprints, design terminology and concepts can be overwhelming or too abstract.

As an example, the beginning of a Divergence Session needed to push the team to think outside of the box and generate as many ideas as possible for a new online product. We needed to get people thinking that the process for the day required not only exploring ideas but how synthesizing the ideas they generate will get us closer to finding the best solutions.

So we conducted an exercise called One Plus One Equals One that allowed the team to put this into practice in a fun and quick way.

In this activity, team members created a random word on a post-it note and placed it on the forehead of the person next to them so that person couldnt see it. People were then asked to walk around and listen to others give clues to what the word might be, helping build listening skills required for the day.

During the process, people are asked to pair up and combine their words to create a hypothetical idea. Then the pair spends time coming up with a quick presentation about their new idea.

Other than having fun and spending time to play, we use the exercise as an opportunity to walk-through expectations of the day, scaling the 15 minute experience into 7 hours of ideation, listening, and synthesis.

Initiating Play to Help Think Outside the Box

When my daughter was 9, one of my favorite things to observe her do was playing with her toys. I loved seeing her create identities for all her action figures, dolls, and other toys and how she created dialogue and meaning between them all.

She created her own world. It was as real to her as anything else.

Its an amazing thing to watch but an even more amazing thing to experience. I had come to realize that much of her play was a part of her learning about the world, and as adults, we forget to learn how to play in order to help us better understand problems, solutions, and the courage to think differently about them.

Thats why we encourage play when it comes to design thinking.

During a session with a startup, our client entrepreneurs were having a hard time communicating their idea in a simple way. So we played an exercise of The Martians have Landed.

In this activity, we tell everyone that Martians have landed in the parking lot and are intrigued with what we are designing. Although the Martians cant read or understand our written and verbal language, they are able to digest our ideas through drawings.

The team was given the challenge to help the Martians understand what the product is all about, but by only using visual symbols on one small index card. Oh, and we only gave them 2 minutes to draw.

The results helped our clients quickly identify patterns, themes, and semiotics to focus on. It was fun, playful, and provided some answers we needed from the group within 10 minutes.

Creating Rituals to Deepen Meaning and Build Culture

Were not out to create a cult following (well maybe just a little), but we are interested in creating a culture and shared mental map when it comes to collaborating as group to solve a design challenge.

Rituals are small ceremonial routines that can be used to host deeper and more meaningful interactions with participants of a design sprint. They should be conducted at the beginning and end of a sprint, as well as for each day.

Weve borrowed from our own Agile approach to development to include daily stand-ups where each member shares what they are working on, whats blocking them, and what they plan on doing next. This helps. The standup ritual shouldnt be longer than 10 or 15 minutes. It helps with alignment and prioritization of workflows and gives the team a quick overview on the current status of the work. Weve also incorporated the end-of-day retrospects to find out ways to improve our process for the next day.

Weve also incorporated daily pitch practices in our design sprints. This helps our clients refine their pitch as the prototype is being developed ??helping them include new ideas and designs in the process. It also helps our design and development team focus on empathizing with the clients vision for the product.

In our final day at our last design sprint, we asked everyone to write down the name of each person on an index card. We then asked them to think about the past week and the relationships built through the process ??looking at each persons strengths and contributions. Then we asked them to come up with an award goes to for each person.

This allowed us to spend the final closing minutes of our design sprint week to express appreciation of everyones contributions. This was very important to us and everyone who participated.


Design sprints can be difficult and intense. In many cases, participants are thrown into this experience without ever having known or worked with each other before. It helps acknowledge the amount of energy, knowledge, and creativity that has to go into accomplishing design sprint goals.

Also, for many startups and entrepreneurs who come to us for UX design, we understand that for many of them, the whole process is a big step towards realizing their ideas and dreams. This is both exciting and scary. A part of what wed like to do, is help build them build a community around their business ideas by making everyone feel that they are also a part of realizing those dreams.

So keep playing, keep dreaming and come see us when you are ready to make it happen.

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