Chaos Chairs at Clerkenwell Design Week

On Tuesday this week Adam Burtt-Jones, Steve Brewer and I ran a special little session hosted at Davison Highley as part of Clerkenwell Design Week 2016. The idea was to bring to life one of Burtt-Jones & Brewer’s core principals while allowing me to show off and confuse people. It was, in this way, a win-win.

When Adam, Steve and I podcasted together a few weeks back we briefly touched on the challenge of getting the client fully engaged with the design process. The problem is that many clients and designers seem to take a transactional view of the process – client poses question, designer delivers answer.

But as work becomes more complex, does this approach really work anymore? As far as we are concerned, the answer is a resounding no.

It really isn’t possible, in the space of a 45 minute session, to address this entire issue. But one thing we felt we could do was really open up the idea of complexity and let the participants extend their thought process. So we played a game I call Chaos Chairs.

The game is very simple. A group of people sit in chairs with one empty chair. The “Sitters” work as a team, moving between chairs to prevent the “Walker” from sitting in the one empty chair. Sitters can run and talk and shout and do whatever they please (as long as nobody blocks the walker). The only restriction is that once a Sitter has stood up they can’t sit back in the same chair again. The Walker cannot run. The round is over when the Walker sits in the empty chair.

What the game does, alongside increasing opportunities for personal injury law suites, is it brings to life the reality of complexity.

In round one people really don’t know what to make of it. On this occasion the round lasted about ten seconds. By about round three we begin to see strategies emerging and usually one or two players trying to put a cap on the chaos by proposing structures to keep to, rules to follow.

“What if we put our hands up before moving so the team know what’s happening?”

“How about only the person nearest to the empty chair is allowed to move to it?”

“If one person moves we all move with them.”

These are all good ideas and, pretty much every time, the outcome is not exactly as expected. Some players misunderstand the instruction, others have a different idea of when each rule applies, and the Walker responds to the way the team plays too! So everything the team does leads to unintended changes in the game.

What we see is that even in a very simple situation complexity can arise which makes it almost impossible for one person to predict and control the outcome. And because this is all happening now, for real, not as a purely mental exercise, everyone gets to see how they react to the situation.

Some commented that they felt a great deal of pressure. Some felt nervous, others were worried about letting the team down. And this was just a game. A simple game. Those emotional responses inform us both about an often hidden layer of the design process and about how we personally relate to the creative process.

This is a simple game which gives rise to complexity and the opportunity for deep insights. I encourage you to play it yourself. Just be careful. It can get rowdy.