Doodling Nicolas Cage: How we keep work fun

If you’ve ever found yourself Googling “Nicolas Cage Disney Princesses,” you have something in common with at least 90% of Idealist employees.

We’re not quite sure how it’s gotten to this point, but in the past year or so our obsession with the man has snowballed from quiet Internet searches to actually working the Cage motif into our office decor: there’s a Wonder Woman with the actor’s face on the women’s restroom door, for instance. And when we found out that a dry-erase board that allows you to “Design a new hairstyle for Nicolas Cage!” existed, we just had to have it.

Sometimes someone scribbles something sloppy and conceptual on Nic’s head while passing by; sometimes it’s a thoughtful work of art.

But it always makes people laugh. Or at least stop and stare. Which helps make the whole ‘working’ part of work a lot more fun. Especially because the ever-changing Cagescape is right next to the candy jar, so people keep coming back.

Here are a few of our favorites so far (though the hits keep coming):

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Does your office have its own Nicolas Cage to lighten the mood? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

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Try This! Host a birthday conference for good

We’ve heard about the trend of “donating your birthday” to a specific cause, but what about going one step further with an all-out conference? Read how Emily Pearl Goodstein hosted one in Washington, DC this year—and how you can do the same where you live. (Warning: may not suitable for introverts.)

Emily!

The birthday keynote, Emily Pearl Goodstein
(photo via Tosha Francis)

Emily Pearl Goodstein is an unabashed birthday enthusiast. Her recent celebrations have included 80s prom fundraisers, potluck picnics in DuPont Circle, a crafternoon featuring decoupage picture frames and cupcakes, and a Jewish Soul Food dinner with the pop-up restaurant service Feastly.

And for her 30th? She hosted a conference.

Yes, a conference. Now, some of you who aren’t particularly keen on wearing lanyards and attending panels might be wondering: why on earth?

It started as a joke. But it turned into so much more.

Emily, a self-professed “sweatpants enthusiast, reproductive justice activist, photographer, online organizer, and rabble-rouser” wanted to do something big, fun, and with a nonprofit feel.

Seeking inspiration, she thought back to her enjoyment of Learn-a-Palooza, a daylong skill-sharing event, and a summer camp she went to as a kid where she got to be crafty all day long. When she put the two together, what did she get? A birthday conference.

So this past May, over 100 of Emily’s friends and family came from down the block and out of town to spend a day at the George Washington Hillel experiencing her favorite things.

Her cohort hosted sessions that ran the gamut: cookie decorating, sailing, yoga, tips for keeping email under control, competitive Cranium, massage, flower arranging, a paid sick days for restaurant workers campaign, and the Minnesota State Fair (think giant cookie tubs, unlimited milk, and a personal message from State Senator Al Franken himself).

Emily spent ten minutes at each session—including belting Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate” at the top of her lungs as part of the Fair’s Giant Sing Along.

But it wasn’t just about Emily. She charged attendees a $30 registration fee, with all the money after costs going to Planned Parenthood and Gift of Life, the latter in honor of her good friend and activist Elissa Froman who sadly passed away during the planning process. Both nonprofits had tables at the conference where people could learn more, and Gift of Life even gave cheek swabs to add to their public bone marrow registry.

Combining social justice with life’s pleasures: the day couldn’t have made Emily happier.

“The whole time I was planning it, I knew it was a super weird idea and people had trouble visualizing how it would all shake down,” she says. “For me, I imagined us all eating cookies and empanadas and singing songs. Then the day arrived, and people literally had notepads. I was surprised at how seriously they took it.”

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(Photo credit: Tosha Francis)

Do you want to host your own birthday conference?

Here are Emily’s top four tips:

1. If you’re jazzed about it, others will be too.

After Emily had the idea, she posted it on Facebook and within minutes had dozens of likes, enthusiastic comments, and her first confirmed speaker. She then asked a friend (the owner of Mr. Yogato, a local frozen yogurt shop) to be the first corporate sponsor; that move brought even more attention (one great example: Phickles Pickles, a small pickle company located in Athens, Georgia, found out about Emily’s birthday on Twitter and sent her a few cases of personally branded pickle jars!). Day by day, people started to realize she wasn’t kidding.

2. It’s your party and you can choose what you want to.

It’s the one day of the year when you can be selfish and unapologetic about it. Craft the sessions to your liking. If someone wants to present a sesh on zombies and The Walking Dead isn’t your thing, just say no. Everyone will understand.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Emily wanted to have a balloon arch. Really badly. In the end, though, it just turned out to be too complicated and she had to forgo it. Nobody noticed (not really even her).

4. Ask.

Don’t be afraid to ask your friends who have skills and talents to get up in front of a room full of people. Ask nicely, personalize your request (no mass emails!), and try to provide publicity in exchange for sponsorship. People will want to help. Really.

At the end of the birthday conference, Emily was starting her new decade with deeper knowledge and a stronger community.

“The spirit of coming together and taking a chance on a crazy idea was very impactful for me,” she says. “I’m having trouble even now figuring out how to thank the people who made the day possible. People really brought it.”

Now that the candles are blown out, how will she ever top the big 3-0?

“Maybe for my 31st birthday, I’ll do an unconference,” she says.

Want to host your own birthday conference? Feel free to reach out to Emily for advice on the best free online tools to use, further insights on the art of asking, or any other questions: emily.goodstein@gmail.com.

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Epic Playgrounds: How one dad is reinventing where America plays

Do you remember the playground you used to go to as a kid?

Mine was at Abbey Lane elementary school in Levittown, New York. It was a massive wooden castle, complete with tiny hidden rooms throughout, a tire moat you could crawl through, and all sorts of twisty slides and bouncing bridges.

I loved that playground. I wanted my parents to take me there all the time.

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A modern-day adventure playground in Hackney, London
(photo courtesy apesatplay.com)

Now I take my daughter to banal plastic structures that pale in comparison. So what happened in the years it took me to become an adult?

Billy Jensen has a theory: we got scared. Back in the 60s, our playground crafters took a cue from Europe’s and designed spaces unafraid to venture beyond the traditional four S’s: slide, seesaw, swing, and sandbox. We had giant rocket ships, hinged robots, fabulous circus wagons, and more—with all sorts of frills and thrills.

But they were too high. And too rough. Kids fell and broke bones. And got splinters. So we sued. Downsized. And in the process, Billy argues, stunted kids’ imaginations and contributed to the nation’s growing childhood obesity problem.

“What costs more at the end of the day?” he asks. “A broken arm, or diabetes?”

Billy, a digital media strategist, writer, and father of two teens, thinks it’s time we stop being so overprotective and return to the heyday of adventure playgrounds.

“When you have a playground, you’re really hitting everything you want to do with children: you’re engaging their imagination, having them work well with others, and they’re running around and exercising. There’s really nothing else that does that,” he says.

In December last year, Billy launched Epic Playgrounds, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that will aim to get kids ages eight through twelve excited about being outside again before they start doing all those things you see on after school specials.

Inspired by Walt Disney, Billy’s nonprofit wants to construct signature playgrounds that encourage imaginative, open-ended play. And they wouldn’t be just for kids.

“They key is to create something really cool to look at that adults would want to play on as much as children,” he says. “And at the end of the day, a community can be proud of it and say, ‘This is one of the great things we have here. And it’s like no other playground in the world.’ ”

The playgrounds can also act as alternative classrooms by telling stories about the town’s heroes, like Boulder’s Scott Carpenter Park, a tribute to the local astronaut.

In short: bigger, better, and more fun.

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Billy Jensen

To realize his dream of building the most inventive theme playgrounds you’ve ever seen all across America, Billy needs three things: artists to design, engineers to build, and most importantly, municipalities and other donors to pay. The project is entirely self-funded so far.

While he’s just starting out, what Billy does have are lots of excited responses from parents, along with a few designs, which he plans to get more of and curate in an art show. Afterward he’ll present them to local governments and encourage communities everywhere to clamor for an epic playground of their own.

“What we have right now are a lot of little hunks of plastic burning in the sun that nobody really wants to go on,” he says. “This really is a matter of: if you build something really cool, they will come. And play on it.”

If you’re an artist, builder, community developer, or philanthropist and Epic Playgrounds has captured your imagination, Billy would love to talk with you. Get in touch by emailing bill@billyjensen.com.

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Why so serious? What playful thinking can do for you

This week’s spotlight: all things play.

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This silly face courtesy of Flickr user Philip Dean via Creative Commons

If your last brainswarm left you with a yellow notepad full of wild ideas, don’t chuck them in the recycling can quite yet. You might be closer to a great new program idea or creative fundraising solution than you think.

According to the minds behind the leading design innovation firm IDEO, the ridiculous ideas we get from uninhibited playful thinking come hand in hand with brilliant ones.

Brendan Boyle is a partner and toy lab leader at IDEO and promotes creative entrepreneurialism around the world. Joe Wilcox, a former circus performer and kinetic sculptor, is one of IDEO’s top toy inventors.

In a recent 99U article, they talked about the importance of play for generating fresh ideas:

Brendan: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.

Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. You need an environment that isn’t quite so judgmental about a ridiculous idea. Sometimes those are the ones that are so close to being the brilliant ones. If a space that allows for play can help encourage those types of ideas than you’ll come up with some possibly ridiculous but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it [by trying out] the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.

So hang on tight, buckle your safety belt, and don’t be afraid to get a little silly with your ideas. You never know what you’ll come up with.

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What’s your favorite ridiculous idea that ended up being great?

 

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Link roundup: Playful libraries, the secret to reading a lot of books, and more

Peep this slideshow from Flavorwire about the most playful libraries in the world:

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NYC’s Robin Hood Foundation library.

Read these:

Take action:

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Want to be more innovative? Go play

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

There are many different strategies to brainstorming, developing creative ideas, and getting the juices flowing. Author Bruce Nussbaum talks about using play to get innovative in his recently-released book, Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. In an excerpt from the book on Co.Design, Nussbaum shares examples of how letting people who trust each other have some fun in a safe space has led to innovation and development.

For some time, American society has viewed play as kid stuff; it’s been dismissed as trivial or marginalized as the territory of those lucky enough to work in creative fields or the arts. And there’s some truth to the misconception. For centuries, musicians, painters, and dancers have utilized the strategies of play to create masterpieces. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the sculptor Richard Serra, known for his huge installations of sheet metal bent into spirals, ellipses, and arcs, explained his process: “In play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems. . . . In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there.” Though there are countless ways of playing, play can be defined as tossing aside the rules of “regular life” for a period of time in order to follow new rules or try new possibilities. Play can exist within the structure of a formal game, but it doesn’t have to. (In fact, the words “play” and “game” are interchangeable in a number of languages, including German, though we separate the two in English.)

We often aim to achieve a goal, but sometimes we play simply for the joy of it. Playing can involve strategies–some simple, some very complex. Some games teach you everything you need to know before you begin; in others, you learn to play as you play to win.

When we play, we try things on and try things out. We improvise, taking on new roles, imagining what would happen if we possessed new capabilities or behaved differently. We throw away what doesn’t work and build on what does. We can play alone or compete against someone else; we can collaborate with another person or a team against a larger enemy. We may lose a game or a battle, but there is always the chance to start again.

Nussbaum emphasized that there do need to be rules and boundaries—including knowing that there are no right or wrong answers and making sure it is the right group of people who trust each other—and that play doesn’t always lead to a breakthrough. When using play as a brainstorming tactic, Nussbaum encourages people and businesses to look at problems as challenges to be overcome and to be a bit silly in their actions.

Do you use play in your creative life? What rules do you put in place for your brainstorming? What ideas has playtime given you?

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