A Foolproof Technique for Fooling Around

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , strategy , Voice , advice

A partner in a small design office once confessed to me, “We have a reputation for doing thoughtful work, and I like to think we do. But, you know, the best stuff that ever comes out of this office always begins with one of us saying, 'Wouldn't it be a funny thing if…' ”

In other words, design, combining the cerebral and the emotional, is a process relying heavily on just fooling around. That is one reason design is so much fun. Fooling around, of course, is only the beginning. That is one reason design is such hard work.

Like its soberest counterparts, fooling around may be enhanced by good equipment. For a time, designers made layouts and dummies by pasting down pictures and text blocks with rubber cement. Sometimes the rubber cement was supplanted by a quicker and neater product, a hot-wax device consisting of a hollow rod with a roller on one end and an AC plug on the other. You loaded a stick of wax into the cartridge and rolled it over the back of whatever you were pasting.

Once when working on a project with a Santa Monica think tank I noticed that the resident thinkers had adapted the same instrument to the organization and display of the feasibility studies that were their stock in trade. I no longer remember what the thinkers thought, but I remember fully what they did, probably because I admired and swiped it. They would hot-wax one side of a 3x5 index card, which could then be stuck to the wall. Clients seeing the array were impressed by the number of ideas these guys were able to generate, and I was impressed by the flexibility of the technique, which seemed applicable not just to displaying ideas but perhaps even to having them.

Back in New York I bought one of the gadgets at an art supply store and began using it. A wall full of index cards, each with an idea scribbled on it, was a very good way to outline material I was working on. The system allowed me to rearrange the cards at will, pretty much as word processing software does now. Another advantage was that, for making presentations, I could wrap a rubber band around the cards, take them to a meeting, and post them on whatever wall was available.

Post-it art on display at GR2.

The beauty of the system was that I didn't have to wait for Post-its to be invented. By the same token, it was flawed in a way that the think-tankers regarded as a serious impediment, although it was not a problem for designers or art directors. When you're creating a dummy on a horizontal surface, gravity is on your side. What's pasted down stays down. But without 3M's technology that would later make Post-its possible, the adhesive staying power of the cards was limited and erratic. Some of them would stay up on the wall for days, some for weeks, others for less than an hour. This would be a clear disadvantage in doing a feasibility study for a corporation, but for purposes of just fooling around it promised to have a crazy positive side as well. Was there a way to exploit the limits of the technique by incorporating its imposed randomness into the work itself? What if, I wondered, I assessed the worth of individual ideas by the length of time they stuck to the wall? The ideas that stayed up were the ones I would try to develop. The fallen ideas, having deserted me, were abandoned by me in retaliation.

Well, it worked, at least some of the time. At a time when mathematicians were insisting on the impossibility of achieving randomness, this system did it automatically. Although I was loath to admit this even to myself, it turned out embarrassingly often to be as reliable as any other criterion I had. This was not unprecedented. Teachers joke about grading papers by throwing them down a staircase and assigning grades according to where they land. I knew a teacher who claimed to have actually tried it, and said that the results were not much different from usual.

When I showed the system to friends and colleagues, a common reaction was: “But what if the ideas that land on the floor are the good ones?” Well, what if they are? You still have the option of picking them up and ignoring what the wall has told you. The system doesn't require giving up free will. Just as brainstorming encourages bringing even bad ideas into the open without obligating you to follow them, you are under no obligation to honor those that have stuck to the wall.

More importantly, I discovered that the wall helped clarify one's own deep wishes and best instincts. This is a principle I have found invaluable as a tool for making decisions. Here's how it works. When you can't decide what you want to do, you toss a coin. It comes up tails. That doesn't entirely satisfy you, so you declare, “best out of three” and toss it again. Once more it comes up tails. A twinge of disappointment prompts you to change the rule to best out of five. By that time you begin to recognize that heads is what you truly want, which is essentially what you were trying to find out anyway. The great Danish designer, inventor, philosopher and poet Piet Hein captured the principle in one of the thousands of brief verses he published called “Grooks”:

A Psychological Tip
Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,
and you're hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma you'll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.

No—not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you're passively standing there moping,
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you're hoping.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.