Cancer, sex, money, birth control, poverty—just a handful of topics on a list many of us might call Things I Want to Bring Up But Don’t Know How. But shying away from stigma keeps people from talking about the issues that really matter. Embracing conversations about taboo topics can help deepen understanding and empathy, and empower people to make better decisions about their health, finances, and careers. And since many taboos are related to serious global epidemics, like homelessness and segregation, talking about these issues is the first step toward taking action—and even affecting real change.
Thankfully, surfacing taboo topics doesn’t have to be as awkward or scary as it might seem.
Did you join millions of people to dump an ice bucket on your head to raise awareness for ALS, and suddenly find yourself discussing (and maybe even donating on behalf of) a disease you didn’t have a personal connection to? What if you walked into middle school health class, and your teacher was wearing tampon earrings or giving out anatomical cupcakes that made you laugh and made it easier to talk about periods?
Play has the power to translate fear and awkwardness into curiosity, with humor, storytelling, games, and interactive experiences that can help people feel comfortable (and even enjoy) diving into a tricky topic.
Here are three ways to start a conversation about anything—even the most taboo topics—through playful design.
1. Create an immersive experience
Death is terrifying. “Reimagine End of Life,” a city-wide exploration of life and death with creative workshops, performances, comedy shows, and reflections, makes it easier to wrap your head around. Last year in San Francisco, I joined 10 strangers in an interactive theatre experience inspired by the question, “What if facing our death allowed us to live more fully?”
Through virtual reality simulations, eulogy readings, and a theatrical visit to purgatory (picture white curtains and costumed actors), the event immersed our group in a new world and guided us to face death together, one step at a time. A year later, I still find myself reflecting on this experience and sharing my hopes and fears about dying.
At your next event, try incorporating skits, role play, costumes, and themed decorations to fully immerse your group in the topic you’re discussing. These interactive elements can create a safe environment for people to really open up.
2. Meet people where they play
Sex and contraception can be intimidating and even embarrassing topics to discuss in many cultures, making it difficult for health experts to dispel myths and support youth as they make decisions about their bodies. But dance contests, magazines, nail salons, and fashion shows? Those teens can get behind.
In Zambia and Kenya, IDEO.org has brought playful experiences to life through The Diva Centers as well as through the upbeat Future Fab brand, which give teens and staff a space to connect and talk about anything—from glittery nails to IUDs. The IDEO.org team has also designed aspirational characters known as the Divine Divas to give the girls an opportunity to talk about their goals for the future—and how contraceptives might fit into them.
If you’re looking to tackle a taboo topic with a specific group of people, consider their natural gathering places. Do they go rock-climbing, cook, or hike? By meeting people where they feel most comfortable, you can make difficult conversations easier to navigate.
3. Forgo words altogether
For topics so complex that we don’t know where to begin—how about by translating words into motion? Creative Tensions is a “conversation that moves” developed by IDEO and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, where participants reveal where they stand on an issue by where they physically stand and move in the room along a spectrum between two options. The exercise can help people explore polarizing topics by asking, for example, “What inhibits our sexual lives more—the government and society, or ourselves?” Participants can either share their perspective aloud in a facilitated conversation or express themselves silently through their movement alone. It’s a non-verbal way to start meaningful explorations of taboo topics that everyone can be a part of, simply by moving their feet.
To do something similar, try asking people to express their thoughts without words—through dance, music, drawing, photography, or building with LEGOs. These creative exercises can lower the barrier to entry and prompt even the most reticent to participate, and eventually, start talking.
With thoughtful design, breaking the ice on complex topics can be more playful than painful. Between comic books and board games about menstruation, superhero-themed summer camps about social issues, and ballot education parties, there are countless ways to help people navigate controversial topics.
What methods do you use to help get people talking? Send your ideas so we can work together to unlock meaningful conversations around the causes we care most about.
A designer, activist, and girls leadership coach, Katie is happiest helping others turn passion into purpose and bring impact-driven ideas to life.
Takashi is a Visual Interaction Designer on IDEO's Design For Play team. He's fascinated with how technology can be used in meaningful and accessible ways in everyday life.