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The four-letter word that petrifies the establishment

Zahra Ebrahim, principal and founder of archiTEXT, an architecture and design think tank.

Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/rosa park The Globe and Mail

Zahra Ebrahim, principal and founder of archiTEXT, an architecture and design think tank, is big on the p-word. As in "play." The word is often viewed as profanity in the business world, she says, but it's part of the culture at her Toronto studio.

"Creativity, innovation and social innovation are the buzzwords that all big business is transitioning toward, but the idea of play as an activity is something they're very scared of," Ms. Ebrahim says. "It takes a while for people to warm up to it."

Founded in 2006, archiTEXT's mandate is to use architecture and design to help businesses engage a more diverse audience in their marketplace. The young staff, ranging in age from 21 to 32, includes people with backgrounds in economics, history, art, design and architecture.

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"If we're dealing with an established business, what's challenging is to convince them to abandon this very safe structure and go to a new place where they're not sure where it will take them," Ms. Ebrahim says.

Ms. Ebrahim likes to get to "the why" of how a person thinks - why someone sells a particular product, why they care. This is not always exposed in the traditional business thinking process. "A lot of what we do is designed to be provocative and start conversations," she says.

"Over the last decade there's been a move from business thinking to design thinking," Ms. Ebrahim says. "What we're doing at archiTEXT is experimenting with it. The way that we come to any solution is we bring in dynamic thinkers because if you want a team of designers or architects, there are many other places you can go. But where we've really carved our niche is by bringing young thinkers into these dynamic groups."

Born in Kenya, Ms. Ebrahim grew up in West Vancouver, then studied urban systems and architecture at McGill. For two years she served as innovator-in-residence at Canada's national design museum, the Design Exchange, and was the youngest professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design.

Her approach to design thinking is that it's a messy process, unlike "clean business thinking," which might include checklists.

"If we can understand why someone does what they do, then we can get really messy. We can pull stories from their childhood and other things together to create something cohesive that is lucrative for this company.

"We say it's messy because we have no idea where it's going to go," Ms. Ebrahim says. "Messy is good."

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Ms. Ebrahim's advice to business is to do all the things that people say you can't do - something she takes to heart.

"Most projects start off with people telling us that we're not going to pull that off. Then we sit down and say, 'How are we going to pull that off?' If you follow that modus operandi, you'll find you get these really great ideas that position you in a way that's different. That's what every company wants - to be a little bit different. People come to you because you're unlike anyone else."

"People will remember you for the one thing that you did that was super interesting and will keep coming back to you because of it."

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