Rotarians laugh their way to human connection | John Hamer

To be honest, I and some other Rotarians had never heard of “human-centered design,” but it is a genuine discipline.

Imagine 50 Rotarians ROFL (Rolling On the Floor Laughing). Hard to visualize, right?

But if you’d been at the Mercer Island Rotary Club meeting last week at the Community Center, you’d have seen a few dozen Rotarians at least LOL (Laughing Out Loud), if not on the floor.

They were standing in pairs, facing each other, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, shaking their torsos — and then laughing uproariously.

No, they hadn’t been drinking. Rotary lunches are alcohol-free. And there was nothing “special” in the brownies they had for dessert.

The somewhat goofy and often hysterical spectacle was inspired by the club’s speaker, Bobby Hughes, principal facilitator of Aardvark Design Labs.

After a brief introduction, he asked us all to pick a partner for a few little exercises. We paired up at our tables and got ready to participate, some reluctantly. We are a diverse group of various ages, backgrounds, and interests and we don’t all know each other very well. So a bit of trepidation was understandable.

First he asked us to alternate counting to three: One partner said “One,” the other said “Two,” the first said “Three,” the other said “One,” etc. A simple task, right? Well, it was amazing how quickly many of us screwed up and said the wrong number. Try it and you’ll see! We all laughed at our inability to keep the count going smoothly.

Then he asked us to clap instead of saying one number. That was even more challenging. Next he had us stomp our feet instead of saying the second number. Finally, we were to shake our upper bodies at the third number.

By then everyone in the room was laughing because we were having trouble doing the exercises. Successful citizens, business people, teachers, real-estate agents, parents, grandparents, retirees, etc. — all acting like a bunch of goofballs. Finally Hughes said to throw both hands in the air if we were frustrated. Most in the room did exactly that. “Woo-Hoo! We all make mistakes,” Hughes shouted.

What was the point of all this? Well, Hughes uses “playful facilitation to help people learn and apply human-centered design, grow their ability to collaborate effectively, and create ground-breaking products and services that people love.”

“We focus on people,” Hughes added.

To be honest, I and some other Rotarians had never heard of “human-centered design,” but it is a genuine discipline. Hughes has more than 15 years of experience in design and innovation, having worked with clients including Nike, Google, The Gates Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, and IDEO. He has a master’s in engineering/product design from Stanford and a bachelor’s in physics from the University of Washington. He has lectured and coached innovation at various places.

As for the seemingly silly exercises, Hughes’ bio asks: “What is the role of connection and play in design and innovation? How do we foster meaningful connections that go beyond surface level?”

On the big screen, Hughes listed several “research-backed actions that we can each take that will support human connection.” They are:

• Eye contact

• Physical touch

• Shared movement

• Vulnerability

• Common goals and interests

• Supporting one another

• Curiosity, gratitude, appreciation

That’s what we did with his exercises. But come to think of it, those seven elements all can be helpful in much of life, including marriage, family, work, volunteering, community service, politics, and just living our daily lives. Human-centered design could — and maybe should — be applied to almost everything we do.

As 50 or so Rotarians learned last week, it’s as easy as “One. Two. Three.” “Clap. Stomp. Shake.”

Oh, wait. This “human-centered” stuff is harder than it looks!

John Hamer is a longtime Rotarian and Mercer Island resident for 25 years. He was an editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times and co-founder of the Washington News Council. He always had trouble with math and numbers. His wife and grandchildren will verify that.