Workflow vs. playframes

I would like to offer the concept of playframing as an alternative to “workflow.” The differences may at first seem subtle, but have clear consequences.

The problem with workflow

Workflow is a term often used by my peers (other popular music makers) to describe a methodical and efficient way with which to consistently move from task to task in their day-to-day creative practice. Although the word primarily denotes a way of cognitively framing their practice, a physical or software and/or hardware counterpart (one that is “set and forget” in nature) usually formalises the arrangement. The advantage of such an approach is that it can (initially, at least) facilitate creative action. The downside however, is that such systems, once initiated, tend to become concretised and left in place long after the user starts to: (a) respond to it in a rutted, predictable manner largely based on “performance scripts,” or (b) develops a mastery of the system which exceeds the challenge of engaging it. At that point flow is replaced by boredom.

Frame of mind

 The main difference between a playframe and workflow relates to the adoption of one of two possible frames of mind. It is noteworthy that the phenomenological stance adopted by Apter (1991, 1982) and Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1979) interprets the difference between work and play in adults purely with regard to the frame of mind adopted by the practitioner at that time, rather than in terms of the chosen activity being performed. The term playframe indicates that a (paratelic) playful frame of mind is appropriate, whereas “workflow” denotes that a (telic) serious frame of mind should be adopted, one that puts the consequences of the work, and goal of efficiency, before the quality of the flow experience. As Apter (1991, 1982) states, an individual can only be in one state of mind or the other at any given moment.

Quality of experience

Whereas, workflow is largely focused on efficiency and might only be “negotiated” once (and for all), a playframe can be focused on aligning challenge of the task at hand to one’s current skill level. It must therefore must be negotiated anew each and every time a creative session is started. The playframe approach is not meant to be convenient, in fact the negotiation stage might require some careful planning and effort each and every time the practitioner sets out to play. The benefit of feeling a sense of regaining you creative “innocence” anew each time you play however is worth the trouble. You will also find that you take more creative risks with the playframe approach (due to the adoption of the paratelic mindset, Apter, 1982).

The negotiation process within playframing can be quick and spontaneous, with practitioners move in and out of action, and into renegotiations in quick succession. Playframes can likewise be collected and used again, or swapped freely between practitioners in a manner similar to way people might swap recipes. In some cases however, it may be necessary to spend days, or even weeks negotiating/implementing a playframe of some complexity (an example might be the building of a customised computer music program, such as the SATB sequencer featured in this blog).

Brass tacks

You may ask yourself: “If the quality of the experience is more important the consequences of the work, then how can playframing possibly be a suitable substitute for creative practitioners currently using the workflow method?” Well, it can. For a detailed explanation please check out the upcoming blog post “Artefacts of Play.”

(c) 2015 Marshall Heiser

Please note: Portions of some of the articles and postings contained in this website were presented and published in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.


Apter, M. J. (1991). A structural phenomenology of play. In J. H. Kerr & M. J. Apter (Eds.), Adult play: A reversal theory approach (pp. 13-29). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation: The theory of psychological reversals. London, England; New York, NY: Academic Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, N Y : Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1979). The concept of flow. In B. Sutton-Smith (Ed.), Play and learning (pp. 257-274). New York, NY: Gardner Press.