Playing with Loose Parts: the Design 12 Course and Pre-Digital Interactive Environments

Document Type

Conference Paper


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Publication Details

Panel: Playing Art History / Gaming the Museum

Chairs: Michael Maizels, Michael Mansfield

College Art Association annual conference 2017

New York, 16th February 2017, 4:30pm to 7pm


This paper investigates historical connections between art, play and interactivity through a study of the Design 12 course established by British sculptor Simon Nicholson in 1966. The course was run by the College of Environmental Design at University of California, Berkeley, in the understanding that play activities could simulate the invention, construction and testing of a built environment. Although abandoned after one year, Design 12 remains significant for its proposal that play could provide an education in open, interactive environments, in systems building, and in ecological thinking. Of the almost fifty projects completed by students in that year, the most successful were shown to be ‘self-instructional’ and to include many ‘loose parts’ (Nicholson’s terms) when tested by playing children on campus and in local schools, parks, playgrounds, and hospitals. Nicholson’s ‘theory of loose parts’, published in 1971 and drawing extensively from the experience of Design 12, proposed that ‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it’. With this theory, Nicholson connected expanded modes of sculpture to progressive institutional uses of play during this period, such as the Exploratorium established in San Francisco in 1969, and to the anarchistic tendencies of the adventure playground movement. This paper will consider what current attempts by arts institutions to build interactive game environments still might learn from the pre-digital ludic strategies proposed by Design 12 and those environmental designers who have followed its example.

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