Magic Circle Activity: Create Space to Play with Wild Ideas

Hands reach for sticky notes and sharpies in the middle of a wooden table.

Have you ever started brainstorming ideas for a project and found that each one gets turned down immediately because there’s not enough budget, time or resources? It's a defeating feeling that the constraints of the real world remove all possibilities of a creative solution. 

“If you let yourself be bogged down by the things that constantly tell you no, whether real people or things in your own head, it's really hard to think out of the box and go into an innovative space,” says Michelle Lee of the drawback to bringing in constraints too early.

In a magic circle, you get a temporary break from reality to dream big. Creating a magic circle is something designers in IDEO U’s Play Lab like to do at the beginning of a brainstorm. It’s something you can try by yourself, with your team, or with a room full of clients. 

Michelle, a managing director leading IDEO’s Design for Play team, breaks down four steps for creating a magic circle to give permission to be more playful, generative, creative and innovative. Hear more in our Creative Confidence podcast episode with Michelle and Brendan Boyle, an IDEO partner and founder of the IDEO Play Lab. 


How to Create a Magic Circle

Step 1: Articulate a project or challenge you’d like to bring more creativity into. 

Think of a project you’re working on that has lots of road blocks. It might be how to retain top talent, how to engage new customer segments, or how to inspire a remote workforce. 

Step 2: Make room for the constraints.

Acknowledge your constraints by writing them down. For this exercise, it’s helpful to use a physical sheet of paper, sticky notes or portable whiteboard instead of a digital tool.

Perhaps you’re faced with too little time, no money, no team, unsupportive colleagues, or too much input. If you’re with a group, coming up with your constraints collectively can help everyone get on the same page. This step can also help separate real constraints from perceived ones. 

Step 3: Set your constraints aside momentarily.

Once you have your constraints out of your head and in writing, set them aside. Fold up your paper or put it in a drawer. If you went the white board route, roll it out of the room and shut the door. 

Set the understanding that you won’t be referring to your constraints for the next step. This can make some people feel uncomfortable, so reassure them that while the constraints are gone for now, they’re not forgotten.

“You're not ignoring the realities that are out there,” Michelle says of the temporary nature of a magic circle. “You're putting them to the side for a little bit so you can free your brain.”

Step 4: Brainstorm outrageous ideas. 

With the constraints physically taken away, brainstorm widely. Bring on those outrageous ideas because this is your chance to dream big and out of the box. If people bring up concerns, you can remind them that those are outside of the room. Michelle likes to start with ridiculous ideas like something involving a squirrel or defying gravity. 

After your brainstorm, you can bring your constraints back and use them as a tool to evaluate and refine your ideas. Having no constraints encourages you to diverge longer and consider many solutions. Bringing them back enables you to converge and make decisions to reach a final solution. 

“It’s so much easier to take crazy ideas and rein them into something practical and doable than take ideas everyone has done and turn them into something more creative,” she says.


Ready to take your learning further? Learn to prototype, experiment, and iterate to move your ideas forward in our course From Ideas to Action.

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