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Field note—

Prime the mind

Ruth Elliott

16 June 2017

Mindset is everything.

Priming activities are a great way to change someone’s mindset during a workshop or session. They are the tips and tricks we pull out of our designer’s toolbox to get the most out of a workshop.

Participants may be distracted after a busy morning getting to work, rushing from meeting to meeting or not in the right head space for ideas. Priming activities help with this. They help get everyone at the same starting point, primed and ready to go. In today’s world, we often have a short amount of time and have to dive straight in. If everyone is ready to go, we have more time to spend on getting to the heart of a problem.

But don’t get these confused with ice breakers. Priming activities are a bit of fun, but we don’t just do these to break the ice or introduce ourselves — each priming activity has a purpose.

We’re always prototyping and iterating new priming activities, but here are a few favourites we use. If you’ve been in an Empathy workshop you may just recognise some.

Blind drawing: As designers, we draw to think and to share stories. Everyone brings their own strengths and approaches, so drawing isn’t always the first choice for everyone.

This priming activity gets ideas out and onto the page with confidence, without people worrying about drawing skills. If we’re worrying about what something looks like we’re not thinking about what it’s communicating or the idea itself.

The activity is done in pairs, with each person having a piece of paper and a sharpie pen.

The timer is put on for one minute and each person has to draw their partner’s face without looking down at their paper.

If you can’t see what you draw, you can’t be limited by your self-consciousness. A sharpie is a blunt object — it isn’t precious, and it has a thick deliberate line.

We always enjoy this activity and it tends to result in a couple of styles — Picasso, geometric or those with missing features floating mid-air. It’s always a bit of a laugh, but more than that it gets us to draw without limitations.

Eat Poopy Cat: Yes, the name is a bit different but you’ll soon understand how it came to be called this.

Storytelling is essential, it’s how we communicate and it’s part of being human. It’s a key skill — without telling a good story you can’t get buy-in from others.

For this priming activity, each person draws what they did during the weekend on the top of a portrait piece of paper. Try to only draw on the top 5cm as we will need the rest of the paper later on.

They pass the paper to the person on their right, who writes underneath what they think the drawing is communicating. That person folds the top of the piece of paper over so you can’t see the drawing but only the text below it, and then passes the paper to the person on their right.

Continue this process about five more times, hand it back to the person who started it and have a giggle and a read.

You can probably guess where this activity got its name from. What started as a picture of something completely different ended up with the words ‘eat poopy cat’.

Category, category, die: To empathise is to listen. Category, category, die is a great priming activity to use to hone those listening skills, and also one that gets people to quickly say what’s on their mind — perfect before group brainstorming.

Everyone stands in a circle. A category is decided — colours are always a good easy one, or it could be countries, sports teams or typeface names.

As you go around the circle, everyone lists something from the chosen category, eg colours. If they say a colour that has been said before or they are too slow to say one, they’re out and must sit down. Continue going around the circle until there is only one person left.