Think, Make, PolyPlay. A laboratory for innovation in Design, Play, and Education
In 2004 The Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design opened a cluster of design research laboratories, among them the Toy Design Lab. The latter, set up by Peter Dean and Remi Leclerc, aimed at investigating the realities of the toy manufacturing industry, one of Hong Kong's top three export industries in terms of revenue for the Region. The Lab was intended as an inspirational platform to inform and develop creative design for play projects.

PolyPlay, as the unit is known in its current form, is dedicated to fostering from within Hong Kong a culture of innovation that embraces creativity, technology, and communication, so as to support the local industry in maintaining its predominance as a leading innovation, development, and marketing hub for play products.

PolyPlay acts as a research lab, a teaching resource facility, a professional consultancy, and a design development office. Its investigation work focuses on fields where play, design, and education overlap, and transfers knowledge thus accrued to broader innovation contexts. Research at PolyPlay is anchored in the exploration of different notions of play, and the conventions of interactivity, and draws on characteristics of both traditional and contemporary play and other objects to develop prospective play, educational, recreational, and interactive products, environments and multimedia systems.

PolyPlay's research, licensing, and entrepreneurship projects feed SD educational experiences. Knowledge gained in projects is shared with academic, community, and industrial stakeholders.

The PolyPlay website showcases a kaleidoscope of design for play projects, research papers, conference and seminar presentations, consultancy work, Work-Integrated Education (WIE) projects, and exhibitions - a body of work produced since the facility was set up. Curating a natural emergence in various trends of play, the PolyPlay digital archive showcases over 120 playworks, along 9 branches of play. Selected projects highlight the different approaches to toy design applied in student projects, which include user-centered, experimental, critical, and communication design.

Founder, PolyPlay | Principal Supervisor, all student projects | Principal Investigator, all research projects | Facilitator, all workshops | Editor, all texts

PETER DEAN | Founder, Toy Design Lab | Supervisor, Les Boutabous | Facilitator, Connections workshop
BRUCE WAN | Co-Investigator, Design Play Project
ROY HORAN | Co-Investigator, IPsP Project - Integral Psychological Profile
CATHERINE FUNG SHUK TING | Research Assistant, Ecoplay, Aqua Eco, Eco STEAM, War & Toys Projects| Content Manager, PolyPlay Website
MO CHUNG YAN | Research Assistant, Playing for Toys | Assistant designer, PolyPlay website
BONITA CHAN YEE MAN | Research Assistant, Design Play Hackshops
JACQUELINE KO | Research Assistant, Eco STEAM
KAMMY LAM PUI CHU | Research Assistant, IPsP, PolyPlay Web, Hackshops, EcoPlay, Eco STEAM Projects
LO WAH KEI | Research Assistant, GASP!
ANGUS WAN CHUNG YIN | Research Assistant, Hackshops
CHINNY WONG CHIN CHIN | Research Assistant
REX KWONG MAN HIM | PolyPlay Webmaster
GORDON HO | PolyPlay Webmaster
RIO CHAN | PolyPlay Webmaster
TIMOTHY JONES | Website Design Consultant
SEEWHY NG CHO YIU | Design Assistant, War & Toys Project
PHIL DUFFY | Co-facilitator, Hackshops
ROGER BALL | Co-supervisor, Bloom Bombs, Zenga, Tree Studio, Ban Meah Band, Flingamaball, Wherever Dunk, Tag Fight, Treoga, Ecocoon, Darkside HK, Mazu Pack,Grinder Sparks, Skate Stick, Rail Rider, Free Tricks
LORENZO SCAZZIGA | Co-supervisor, Mazu Pack, Grinder Sparks, Skate Stick, Rail Rider, Free Tricks
PHILINE BRACHT | Co-supervisor, Innosand Ecobots
SCOT LAUGHTON | Co- supervisor, Pook

Building on Johan Huizinga's contention that culture is the outcome of play, and considering that we live essentially in a designed world, one may see how design shapes culture. Consequently one could easily recognize the multiple links existing between Play and Design.

Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith's 7 Rhetorics of Play is a useful conceptual tool to refer to should one would wish to see how Play underlines design's cultural purpose. Through it one may consciously refer to play types and categories to understand and assimilate design methodology and processes.

As in play, design processes are uncertain and ambiguous. Just as the outcome of play cannot be pre-determined, design cannot be prescribed. Design is neither concerned with 'truth' (as science is) or justice (the latter being the domain of the humanities), but with what design theorists Nigel Cross and Bruce Archer have coined as 'appropriateness'. This ambiguous notion suggests design solutions are 'right for now' (and not necessarily permanent), and that they are 'right for the now' (that they are rooted in context and need to have contemporary relevance). Similarly most PolyPlay projects start with an open brief, and go through iterative, adaptive, oscillating between 'wicked' and 'tame' processes. Bridging design research, exploration and practice, PolyPlay encourages experimentation, and emphasizes critical rationalization of these.
PolyPlay champions the relevance of play to design education, design research, and design practice: indeed, if culture is the outcome of play, and if design shapes culture, than play necessary underlies structures of design processes.

To the open question... 'Design is ________.' ...we reply design is play is education is design is a line (________) making a point (.).

"Toy design is play made tangible" *
Anywhere you look chances are you will see something that has been designed by someone: we live in a designed world. Core to human activity, design has shaped our environment. In the process it has ballooned into a quasi-omniscient discipline, appropriating methodology from all fields of knowledge.

So how does one get to appreciate something so ubiquitously relevant to contemporary society? How could design be best explained, communicated, transmitted and interpreted? PolyPlay uses play theory in its educational and research design projects as a friendly conceptual Trojan horse to explicate design methodology and reveal its inner workings to students and research stakeholders.

As we toy with design, we realize that design is play. Hence in most PolyPlay projects, students are encouraged to toy with design thinking. Borrowing from play theory and toy design practice, students gain an appreciation of design's complex cognitive nature and relevance to culture and society. To paraphrase Albert Einstein's famous quote on research, PolyPlay uses play as the highest form of design.

PolyPlay is neither a science nor a whim. Call it a whimsical science. PolyPlay projects are informed by:
1. Contextual or theme mapping - to identify and define design for play opportunities, be these driven by personal motivations or latent market opportunities
2. Product, market and technology research - to benchmark innovation opportunities
3. User-centered research probes - to extract a wish list of values and expectations from project stakeholders in the research phase of projects, so as to inform design concepts and tangible models for validation by the same stakeholders in the subsequent development phases
4. Creative techniques borrowed from conceptual art and outsider art - to give user-centered approaches an inclusive human face
5. Experimental ideation processes such as Hackshops - to complement the 'discipline' of design with playful games tapping into the subconsciousness
6. Critical analysis of conventions of interactivity - how would anything be called play if not for that?
7. An appreciation of characteristics of both traditional and contemporary play - to re-contextualize timeless cultural patterns into current-day society
8. Communication tactics borrowed from poetry - to harness the emotional whimsy of the human experience
9. Multimedia communication platforms - to engage designers in play experiences, which they will convert into rich immersive user narratives
*thank you Saul Bass