Research is the first step within any design process. Often, designers will explore this area by referencing other sources via various forms of print material or online statistical and information searches. In other cases exploration of research is done by user experience testing and first-hand data collection. However, one method that is rarely ever used is research by play. This may come across as odd or unconventional and in some cases it may be, but don’t dismiss it! Research through play can actually be very insightful and add a sense of natural responses, ideas, and outcomes. This is especially apparent when incorporated into user experience or development for urban spaces.
This fall I was invited to the “PLAYtheBLOX Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver Edition” event hosted by The Vancouver Design Nerds and SFU Public Square for Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver. The event was held at SFU Woodward’s and its purpose was to gather a wide array of community members to join in, and find new ways to revitalize downtown Vancouver.
The Vancouver Design Nerds are a collective of likeminded individuals active in architecture, green building, urban design, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, engineering, fine arts, sustainability, and community planning. The purpose of the Vancouver Design Nerds is to facilitate and undertake community engaged design projects by means of collaboration and participation within public spaces. Beyond BloxPLAYtheBLOX, which is co-designed by Mitra Mansour and Sarah Hay, the group has hosted design jams and countless other community oriented gatherings. They’ve also recently expanded with a new chapter in Seattle.
Upon arrival I noticed roughly a group of 50 individuals and was surprised at the turn out to this community-driven event. The age range varied, the gender presence seemed nearly equal; and other aspects such as background, lifestyle; and religion were diverse as well.
We were all seated and grouped at different tables (roughly 10 per table). A long 15- foot sheet of paper was spread across the top and on the sheet was a grid of six sectioned city blocks along Seymour Street in the Vancouver downtown core, specifically an area that could benefit from a revitalization project. Each table and group had the same blueprint. We were provided with a kit which included markers, glue stick, street green elements and community gardens; and social/economical designations. We were to work together in our group collectively to redesign, re-imagine; and find an approach with the right balance to fit for the community that we envision.
There was a small catch to the process. Prior to our engagement each member at the table pulled from a deck of cards. On the deck were name, occupation; and social status. We were told to play the part of the individual on the card we pulled. At first I found this confusing. Why gather my input if I have to give it from the perspective of someone else? But as we continued I figured out this part of the process was crucial to the game itself. We were forced not to think with our own bias, but to represent someone of a different circumstance, thus opening up our thought process, inducing empathy, and further engaging us.
I pulled a card and played the role of a female lawyer while others in my group included a photographer and construction worker. This provided a wide range of characters with a broad representation of lifestyles within the community. This was excellent. Initially uncomfortable, I took a minute to gather my thoughts about who I was within the game and the aspects that would matter most to my character’s lifestyle. I mainly thought about recreation and entertainment as well as better ways to access the streets by both transportation vehicles and on foot.
Our group started off by introducing our characters and then dividing into sub groups to tackle the 15-foot long page. The results were completely organic and natural. Within five minutes I noticed everyone fully immersed, engaged and participating at a high level. It wasn’t a game to win points, but a game to build and collaborate together. My groups end result was heavily reliant on foot and bike traffic and eliminated heavy vehicular traffic within the neighbourhood. We established this by blocking off roads and transitioning them into walkways and outdoor living spaces. We made use of rooftops as public domain to best utilize space as the city continues to grow.
When I stood back to look at the outcome of our process I was astonished to see how detail oriented we had been. I felt as though I completely removed myself from the equation and became the character that I was representing. We made some sound choices and really considered the layout, structure, as well as the way people would interact and get from point A to point B. We were making sure that things fit within close proximity so that the city streets somehow felt organized. Only a few of us had any form of background in urban development and design so it was interesting to see how aligned the team was in our overall vision and ideals through PLAYtheBLOX’s game facilitation techniques.
At the end of the night each group took two minutes to briefly explain their outcomes and strategies. There were some amazing ideas that were brought up by every table. Some groups focused heavily on bike lanes and better use of public transportation. Other groups found ways to include more public spaces and areas of leisure. There were interesting takes on elevation and the use of walkways and bike lanes that were suspended above the city streets. It was great to see 6 different outcomes derived from the same scenario and in my opinion an amazing exercise.
This experience blew my mind. I literally walked out thinking “Why don’t we use this method of approach more often in relation to research and process?” This was the first time I had experienced a process that felt fully immersive and natural in every way. The groups all seemed to make rational decisions and I didn’t seem to find anyone in the mix that was merely participating passively. This was a huge eye-opener for me in understanding the process as well as the idea behind this method. I hope to find more ways to incorporate play through process, especially in such forms of group participation and collaboration. I applaud PLAYtheBLOX and the Vancouver Design Nerds for allowing me to take part in such an extraordinary event.