Harnessing the Art of Play for Advertising Success

What is the term “play” to the adult? A forgotten term we left behind while growing up? Something that only comes out while we’re entertaining children, or after we’ve done a full day of hard work? 

Play is an essential part of our being. George Bernard Shaw sums it up pretty well: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to, especially if your career is in the advertising world. The advertising industry is an ever-flowing fountain, swirling with good, bad, new, old, and re-used ideas. I​​t can be challenging to stand out in an over-saturated market, where creativity is either bursting at the seams or running the tap of unique ideas dry as the competition makes it difficult to shine with truly unique ideas. 

Unique concepts are hard to come by and everything may seem to be a copy of a copy, recycling old ideas, and blurring into a general “design style”, that eventually goes out of date and gets replaced by another. Sometimes raw creativity emerges from the design world’s ashes and pioneers a new genre of design. 

But how?

How can you stand out?  

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play. The creation of something new lies not in being a serious intellect, but by the play instinct. Deep meaning is often situated in childish play. 

Thus to come up with striking, brand-spanking-new concepts for that logo, website or whatever it may be, try being a little kid again. Forget your worries and get playful. Make a mess; you’re an adult now and you know you’ll have to clean it up later, but enjoy the process. Get lost in getting dirty. Flirt with the idea of play and take it all the way. Pour out the contents of your unique mind.

I can guarantee you there is a brilliant light bulb of an idea hiding in there. You just need to give it the electrical spark of play to turn it on.

When to play

There’s always room for play in whatever you may be doing. There are many instances where play is important but I’ll just mention a couple.

If you are coming up with creative copy for a campaign, or a brand name, play. Need a fresh idea for a logo and brand identity? You definitely need to play. Even when it comes to designing websites, it may seem like there’s no room to play, yet a well-curated website starts with some play.

Play brings out something you wouldn’t have thought of before. It is a crucial step in being innovative and unique. Effective design and writing require a deep dive into your imagination. Just browsing for inspiration, without adding play, limits your ability to fully immerse yourself in the concept’s context and purpose, resulting in derivative work. No, thank you. Be bold and wholeheartedly show off your own magnificent mind. Yes, find inspiration. Inspiration is valuable in kickstarting creativity but then leave the inspiration behind once you start conceptualising and playing to avoid unintentional copying/plagiarism.

The benefits of play

  • Keeps you creative and innovative while improving and pushing your cognitive skills.
  • It’s fun and positively boosts your mental wellbeing/mood.
  • Brings you back to your childhood whilst promoting learning new things through your imagination, exploring and problem-solving.
  • Spontaneously forges unique ideas. Playing can help break through mental blocks and creative ruts. Engaging in playful activities can shift your perspective, break you out of conventional thinking patterns, and open your mind to new insights and solutions.
  • Allows you to explore possibilities you wouldn’t normally think of.
  • Often leads to happy accidents and stimulates your self-expression.
  • Is very helpful when collaborating or working in a team to collectively brainstorm ideas. Having fun together and being playful aids team morale.  
  • There are no bad ideas. Embrace failure once you set the fear aside. Often it leads to a comforting space where stress doesn’t exist and anything goes. You’re more likely to stay motivated, focused, and enthusiastic about exploring new ideas and pushing boundaries.
  • Can help you tap into your target audience better by delving deep into the experience and emotions of your target audience. By approaching design from a playful perspective, you can create work that resonates with people on a deeper level, sparking interest, curiosity, and emotional connections.

“Play until something happens”: wise words from my past illustration and design lecturer, Stephanie Simpson. Playing is a form of problem-solving. Playing allows one to invent endlessly, leading to dreaming up silly, random and brilliant ideas.

How to play

It seems strange to explain how to play as we have all done it before, yet adulting can make us forget and feel nervous to try because it’s just been that long! The fun thing about play is exactly that; it is fun. It’s nothing serious and mistakes don’t exist. 

To play, you’ll need to gather up some supplies. And guess what? Anything in your sight can be utilised. There are many methods to go about it. It depends on why you are playing and the desired outcome.

In my experience, it is a lot easier to be creative by getting physical. A blank page in front of you has the potential to grow ideas as if the blank page is the seed and your mind is the water. A blank page is palpable and can be moulded into anything. A blank digital screen certainly holds the energy to be transformed into anything too, yet a blank page is more natural and intuitive. It’s tactile and holds the potential for random or accidental pen strokes whereas, with a digital screen, most moves you make are intentional. Don’t get me wrong though, playing around digitally is very fun and does lead to unique, creative ideas too. Although for the sake of keeping this brief, digital play is a topic for another day.

Physical Play

As mentioned before, there are many ways to play and I’ll share some general ways to get you started that can be used for any creative conceptualising. Alternatively, you can purely just play to spark your creativity and not even use your creations. It’s up to you and what you create. 

Mixed media

  • Grab any of the items around you that can be used to get a bit messy with, as well as any of the following items you have access to: 
  • Paper, magazines, newspaper, wrapping paper, scrap paper, scissors
  • Recycling: e.g. bottle caps, lids, chip packets, straws, cardboard
  • Natural treasures e.g. leaves, flowers, sticks
  • Random items e.g. a sponge, an old toothbrush, toothpicks, skewers, elastic bands, fabric scraps, soap, tea bags, coffee grains, lighter
  • Arty materials you have lying e.g. pencils, pens, khokis, paint, wax crayons, pritt glue, wood glue, ink, paint brushes (including an old one to get messy with), even glitter if you want to go that far. 
  • Really, anything you’re happy to play with. The less attached you are to it, the better, as sometimes you have to say goodbye to it afterwards. 

Once you have all of your materials, lay them out in front of you and set up a space. It’s advised to put some newspaper down to avoid any potential stains and whatnot. If paint/ink is involved, you’ll need a jar of water too.

Side note:

Sound as a stimulant: I suggest you put some of your favourite music on, or a podcast, to stimulate your creativity. A quick and easy method of play is to listen to the music and visualise it on the page in front of you by doodling while listening. It’s often surprising to see what it extracts from your mind. Play can happen in stages. You can then take your creation, find your favourite part of it, and build on it.

Back to the basics

Now that you are more than ready to begin, there are many ways to go about this. There isn’t really a method to play. I’m here to inspire you to try, but it’s really in your hands once you start. Anything goes, but here are some ideas to get you started. 

Mark-making

Using your random materials make marks on your paper. The aim is purely to make marks. 

Examples:

  • Take a leaf and dip it into some paint or ink (it’s a good idea to dilute your ink) and then press it onto the page. Do this a couple of times and make different marks, varying the amount of paint on the leaf, and then try this with all the different materials you have. 
  • Take a piece of string, dip it in paint, and drag it over the page.
  • Use tea or coffee to make interesting stains. 
  • Burn the page and put it out. 
  • Sprinkle salt into watercolour. 
  • Scrumple up a piece of scrap paper and use it as your paintbrush… try to use anything abnormal as your paintbrush and take note of the unique outcomes.
  • Draw with a wax crayon on a page and then use watercolour to paint over. 
  • Try using the pencil on its side and see what happens.

Two of my favourites:

  • Mix some water, paint/ink and dishwashing soap into a bak and blow bubbles into it with a straw (make sure only to blow out and not suck up). Once you have a decent volume of bubbles, push your page against it and be in awe of the outcome. 
  • Another cool thing to do is to explore using glue for anything but its purpose. For example, pour some wood glue onto a thick piece of card, mix some ink/paint into it and see what happens from there.

Basically, just make some cool marks and have fun doing it. Whatever comes to mind, just do it.

Typography/font creation

If you’d like to play around with lettering and typography, cut a few small strips of cardboard in varying thicknesses to use as your paintbrush. Dip it into ink or watered-down paint and write the alphabet. 

You can play around with the thick and thin sides of the cardboard, try different swirls and twirls or keep it simple. This is just the first step. Once you have done a couple of full alphabets messing around with different styles and methods, pick your favourite and use that as your very own inspiration. 

Another method of creating a funky font is to cut out shapes in different sizes using different coloured paper. Then use the shapes to create each letter.

Pattern-Making

A unique way to make patterns is to go around and photograph random scenes from funky angles, playing with shadows and distance. The photographs don’t need to make sense. Then focus on the photograph and reduce everything into a shape. You can then redraw or paint out the photo in its reduced shapes. Get some paper (coloured paper/magazines/newspaper) and scissors and cut out the shapes to use them to curate a repeat pattern.

If you have paper scraps or cut-offs, arrange them inside a square. Once you’re happy, draw a grid of squares and paint out the pattern into each square to make a repeat pattern.

Paper/Collage

Set some magazines and newspaper pages in front of you, grab some scissors and start cutting or tearing out (for a rough effect) random images/words/colours – whatever your heart desires. Create a pile of clippings, get some card/paper and stick things down. It can be random, or puzzled together. You can tell a story or not, but I bet you’ll be amazed at whatever happens. 

Mindmapping/Word-mapping

Mindmapping words is great for brainstorming a new concept or getting to unique copy. A nice way to go about it is to create a flowchart of words. Start with an umbrella term for the concept you are brainstorming. Write that word out as your header. Mindlessly (without thinking) write down as many words as you can that relate to your umbrella word in a column, giving yourself about 30 seconds to do this. Try not to repeat words you’ve previously written. 

Take a step back, choose and circle a couple of words that stand out to you the most from the list you just made. Start with the first word you circled, make a new column with that as the header and repeat the process of writing down all the words that come to mind in the next 30 seconds now based on the circled word. Repeat this process for all of your circled words. 

Once your page is bursting with language, take a step back again and carefully pick out the most unique, emotive and fitting words for your original concept. Use these words to build the base of your concept. Bear in mind that choosing some words that don’t fully align with the concept is more than okay as they hold the potential to take your concept a step further by making unique connections that wouldn’t normally fit. Now it’s your job to creatively construct them to fit. 

Overall, integrating play into the process of conceptualising new ideas in advertising design can lead to more imaginative, impactful, and memorable campaigns that capture attention and drive results.

Get lost in the process and get others to play too. Inspire them to get connected to their imagination through play. Promise them it is not as daunting as it seems. Even those who generally don’t play often have many wonderful ideas stored upstairs. They just need to climb up those stairs by getting creative and then open the door to let the ideas flow out.

Remember, playing falls into the beginning stages of concept creation. It is most certainly not the last step. It is the stepping-stone to a grand, innovative and never-before-seen idea. 

Have fun!

Saskia Rezelman

Our talented graphic designer and illustrator is known for her unwavering enthusiasm and incredible creative talent. Saskia effortlessly conjures up captivating ideas that leave a lasting impression. Her genuine kindness and deep love for nature shine through in everything she does, finding inspiration in the great outdoors. Saskia’s meticulous attention to detail merged with a touch of fantasy, makes her a valuable asset to the team.

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