Past the age of 13, what does the word ‘play’ mean to most people? As a teenager advancing towards adulthood, there is the temptation to reject the word, seeing play as too childish as one desperately tries to appear ‘grown-up’. For many adults, I suspect, the word remains associated with their pre-teen life.
For me, Antoine De Saint-Exupéry addresses best how adults can negatively look on childhood play in his book The Little Prince. When talking about some drawings created as a child of a boa constrictor that adults mistake for a hat, the book’s narrator says: “The grown-ups advised me to put away my drawings … and apply myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. That is why I abandoned, at the age of six, a magnificent career as an artist.”
Negative views of play as a creative act is not a concern in artistic circles thankfully, and the word ‘playful’ is a useful descriptor in discussing how an item of visual communication may engage an audience if it has an element of wit about it. The importance of wit and playfulness has been written about at length, with many examples in the field of Graphic Design showcased in titles such as A Smile In The Mind, and there are many design agencies that champion this as a deliberate act in their creative output.
Coming across the work of Sam Griffiths, aka Griffics, in 2019 certainly bought a smile to my mind, and I immediately thought there was a connection to be made between his approach to having creative ideas and that of the legendary British graphic designer Alan Fletcher. One of my favourite books, Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways, encourages seeing the world from different perspectives, and in-turn, this promotes lateral thinking. Griffics work clearly has the same outlook, and celebrates chance discovery, the ability to make visual connections between things that are not normally connected, and to making the most out of what is often over-looked or ignored. In this, both Fletcher and Griffiths celebrate the idea of being connected to possibilities, and nurturing an inquiring mind in order that ideas can have the best chance of coming to the fore. In essence, they both reject the notion that one needs an innate natural talent to be creative—more that creativity requires a mind-set and that anyone can develop this.
I count myself lucky that, out of the blue, Sam got in touch with me after we’d first started following each other on Instagram, and that I have been able to invite him into University of Suffolk to run workshops with graphic design students. In the first, he bought along with him a massive pile of empty boxes he had been saving up, and ran a Rubbish Rethunk exercise and proceeded to get the students to look for the inherent possibilities within the flattened packaging and their graphic ephemera. In three hours, they created a menagerie of cardboard creatures, photographed them, and produced a Something Out of Nothing zine. An incredible feat of turn-around, with students beaming with pride at their achievements in such a short period of time. It proved to be a fitting reminder of what in-the-moment design and an all-hands-on-deck approach can produce, especially as the pandemic hit only a month afterwards and drove us all to our homes and separate screens.
Sam has been back since, for an online talk. His ability to turn any situation, even remotely, into a playful one, is evident in a creative activity he ran at the end of his talk, and the 101 playful prompts he left for students to attempt and share on social media.
His drive to promote play has also come up in recent seminar discussions with final year students, who are doing individual projects that look at a range of topics such as: the social and parental stigma of taking art subjects at school; the debilitating nature of creative-block; and the very pressing problem of an unequal work / life balance. There is a clear relationship to be made in researching such real-world issues and what play means in wider adult society.
Sam has had an interesting career, and has worked as a senior designer for The Partners, (now Superunion), and more recently as Brand Director at Red Badger. He has, however, now decided to dedicate himself to Griffics and promoting play as a full-time venture rather than a side-line. He sells witty homeware artifacts, cards, prints and original artworks. Alongside this, he is also trying to promote the idea of play as a positive workplace attribute, and has recently launched online workshops for any organisation, creative or otherwise. Sam states on his website that the benefits of his workshops are that:
- Play helps people become more engaged, resilient and happier.
- It’s a mindset that helps you have more ideas and as a by-product, better ideas.
- The workshop is a fun, energising, accessible way to explore these ideas.
- It brings people together—especially important at this time.
- The activities in the workshop are simple, memorable and easy to adapt and apply—which gives them the best chance of making a difference.
- It demonstrates your commitment to developing your staff and your interest in their wellbeing.
This chimes with recent requests by experts in child development for there to be a ‘summer of play’ for children in 2021, concerned about the hidden long-term societal cost of home-learning meaning there is a lack of interaction with other children during playtimes. And in the current workplace, Griffics’ workshops are a timely idea with staff well-being high on the agenda of many employers’ concerns at the moment.
From a personal point of view, Sam’s endeavour to promote play echoes with the fond memories I have of watching the BBC children’s programme Play Away in the 1970s. Hosted by playsmith Brian Cant, I always found it a genuine joy to watch as a child. There are still one-liners, silly gags and playful activities enacted in the show that I remember all these years later. And like my thoughts about the link between Griffiths and Fletcher, I draw a comparison between him and Cant, and I wonder whether Sam was an avid watcher as well in his boyhood.