Long before I became an advocate and trained facilitator of Innovation Games®, I was an enthusiastic practitioner of other design games and playful exercises. 

Prototyping with junk

Devoted readers of Interactions magazine will recall a brief report about “Prototyping with Junk“ – an activity which debuted at the CHI2004|ICSID Forum in Austria, a 2-day event for professional development held in conjunction with CHI2004. Along with my fellow organizers, I invited participants – interaction designers, usability professionals, industrial designers and product designers – to create prototypes using the materials we provided such as colored paper, pipe cleaners, stickers, colored pencils and pens, empty egg cartons, drinking straws, and strawberry baskets.

The participants responded to the design prompt (to create a pill dispenser for older adults) from several perspectives. The teams were able to take their physical models (along with descriptions of the functionality) to the German-speaking residents of a Vienna retirement community later the same day. The teams returned to our conference location to continue prototyping, taking account of the feedback from the target audience. By the end of the second day, each team presented its concept and model to the panel of distinguished judges. These prototypes were put together, carried around town, taken apart and reassembled 3 times within 48 hours.

When I describe this activity, sometimes I’ll get pushback from people who feel the term “junk” is disparaging. For me junk refers to objects which might be treated as trash, though they aren’t soiled or broken or dangerous. They are the clean rubbish that might be found in the recycling bin, such as the cardboard tubes left when a roll of paper towels or toilet paper is used up.  I save empty Altoid boxes, similar metal tins, or small containers made of cardboard, plastic or glass.

After the recycling bin, then what?

These days I am happy to take advantage of the interesting shapes, colors and sizes of sticky notes that can be found at office supply stores, as well as gluesticks, spring-loaded clips in animal prints, colored pens and pencils.

I frequent party stores for fun wrapping paper, theme stickers and banners.

I’m lucky to have great teacher supply stores nearby where I can find tongue depressors and painter’s tape in primary colors, numbers and letters in large or small sizes, cut-outs of familiar objects such as leaves and fruit intended for the bulletin board, and cornstarch peanuts.

You can meet me around the sale tables at Ikea where we’ll pick up last season’s mousepads, wrapping paper or bits of fabric.

At the hardware store, cable ties in day-glo colors, felt dots that protect the floor from furniture scratches, and paint chips leap out at me.

Art or craft supply stores will surprise you with interesting papers, buttons, and glitter paint.

Depending on my next engagements, I may stop at the grocery store for out-of-date candy from the most recent holiday, or drinking straws intended for children’s birthday parties.

Lillian Vernon, meet Miles Kimball

In my efforts to be more environmentally conscious, I’ve cancelled many of the paper mail-order catalogs I used to receive. But those catalogs fed my imagination and let me create my own instructional materials. Perhaps you know Lillian Vernon or Miles Kimball?  The catalogs from these companies fascinated me for their information density, layout, and copywriting, as well as the selection of merchandise. Consider the “closet and drawer organization” category alone, for which the Lillian Vernon online catalog (as of this writing) lists 32 different items, at least 6 for storing shoes.

For a conference session held in Canada aimed at interpreters and translators, I planned an exercise around excerpts from these catalogs. With no advance registration for this session, I couldn’t prepare for a specific language combination. In fact, the participants’ language pairs ranged widely; only a few people had the familiar combinations (French-English for some Canadians, Spanish-English for some from the US), and just a few like me, American Sign Language and English. I took a print catalogue, and cut it up so that I could feature a single item glued to each index card. Could a participant pick out the correct item from listening a colleague’s rendition of the catalog copy – especially given that some items share a similar shape and function? (Click on each image below to view the catalog copy.)

These days, when I’m acquiring design game materials, it’s likely for in-person client engagements using Innovation Games, where Product Box especially encourages manipulation of playful materials. Occasionally team-building occasions or celebratory events demand that I consult the Archie McPhee website. I think I’ll just order a surprise box now for each of the upcoming Innovation Games events.

The juxtaposition of unexpected materials inspires creativity, wild ideas and innovative product concepts in product design activities. Fun stuff – like the out-of-context language from the catalog that let the skilled interpreters stretch their skills with colleagues in a safe and playful session – energizes teams to collaborate in problem-solving.

You can learn more about Innovation Games at www.innovationgames.com.

“Prototyping with Junk” is available as a .pdf document