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The Idea Gym: Breaking the Barrier Between Work and Play

by on August 31, 2015 6:00 AM

Conventional wisdom tells you that work and play have to be separated.

New Leaf Initiative is throwing conventional wisdom to the wind with its new Idea Gym.

It's a room within a room, a brainstorming mechanism disguised as a workplace playground. 

The Idea Gym, which New Leaf unveiled within its municipal building entrepreneurial co-working space, is simple in practice. Six semi-transparent blue boards hang from the ceiling, cordoning off a corner of the room. 

The boards include Jessica Menold's own version of the design thinking process based on how she teaches it in her mechanical engineering courses at Penn State. Menold is a graduate student with a focus on entrepreneurship, and the Idea Gym is her own fun but serious space from startups to solve problems. 

"All of these are prompts to get you to brainstorm faster and more efficiently so you can come up with better solutions," Menold said at the unveiling. "It's based on the design thinking process, which is all about understanding your user, where they're coming from, and what type of things they want."

Menold had a big smile on her face as she ran the small crowd through the process, using a young girl named Khalilah who's interested in coding but thinks it's too nerdy as an example. The process includes things like listing all your worst ideas just to get them out of the way.

"Ideally it feels like a game when you go through this space, and hopefully you'll see that if you ever come and use it," she said.

Panoramic photo of Idea Gym by Zach Berger/

"What's striking to me is how much it looks like and is play," one audience member said. "And there's a lot worse things your work can be."

The Idea Gym is using innovative techniques for things like basic brainstorming. Typically, a brainstorming session is thought of as a practice in teamwork, but Menold said going solo while racking your brain for ideas is much better method.

"There's been a lot of research in team dynamics that show when you brainstorm by yourself you actually get richer and more diverse ideas," she said. "There tends to be one person dominating brainstorming sessions when you do it as a team. So your ideas are a lot deeper and more varied if you break off and brainstorm solo and then come back together as a team."

The last step of the Idea Gym involves making a prototype, preferably through the most rudimentary means available, like some of the Play-Doh available at New Leaf or by drawing out a graphical interface on a piece of paper. If you spend hours and hours making a prototype and ask someone for an opinion, Menold said, they might feel pressured to offer positive criticisms.

That method works for even the largest products for the most successful tech companies out there. Google, for example, used a quick prototyping process to make important changes to Google Glass, a wearable computer device with an optical head-mounted display, according to New Lead executive director Galen Bernard.

"When Google Glass was first coming out, the lead designer built a prototype in 45 minutes. It was basically a backpack, fishing wire, and goggles," he said. "It allowed the user to test it and they immediately got feedback just from that quick prototype, and they found that people don't like having their arms above their shoulders. They initially thought there would be a lot of swiping, and just through some fishing wire and ski goggles they found that people don't like that and they get tired."

New Leaf is open to the public from 5 to 9 p.m., Monday to Thursday. You can stop by and check out the Idea Gym yourself on the third floor of the municipal building.

Zach Berger is the managing editor of He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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