9 Creative Improv Lessons for Designers

I’ve always been curious about how to develop creativity. Since creative skills overlap disciplines, it’s worth examining how people in other creative pursuits go about learning their craft. What important things can we learn that also apply to FileMaker design and development? This article explores how lessons in spontaneity from improv theatre can help us generate new ideas and be more confident designers.

Improv

I’ve been taking a weekly improvised theatre class (courtesy of Bad Dog Theatre) and it’s been a real blast. The games are fun and challenging, and we basically laugh at each other for two hours straight. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and making a fool of yourself is a little scary, but being ridiculous is kind of the point, right?

So what’s improv got to do with design? Well, in improv we’re developing creativity and spontaneity, both of which help you create more and better quality design ideas.

Here’s what I’ve learned, other than how to play “Big Booty.” (It’s harder than you think, I assure you.)

1. Ideas are cheap, you can afford lots of them

When you’re in a scene or playing a word-association game, you get lots of chances to come up with stuff. Some things are funny and others fall totally flat. But the process of generating ideas helps you generate more, better ideas.

In design, we often return to our tried-and-true solutions. You know: We solved this problem once, why solve it again? That’s certainly valid under time or budget constraints, but sometimes you want to change it up.

Start by generating some of your own ideas, and then look at what others are doing, or software you already use, to get more ideas flowing. (What typefaces go well together? What colours make good combinations? What design patterns do my favourite apps use?) A Google or Pinterest search will yield lots of results too.

I’ll use Evernote to collect ideas, or just fold a regular 8.5 x 11” piece of paper into quarters and start sketching, trying to combine various approaches. If they don’t work, all I’ve wasted is my time and some paper. If it’s not worth that much, then it’s not worth doing in the first place.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.
— Stephen King

2. Your thinking brain gets in the way

We play a game where one person has to name five things about a topic picked at random (“Name five kinds of jewellery”). After every item, the group shouts the number together (“Rings,” “1!” “Neck rings,” “2!” “Toe rings,” “3!” etc). You don’t have time to think critically about what you’re going to say next. Sometimes the best answers are the ones you throw out there when you can’t think of anything else to say.

When considering solutions to a problem, start by putting down the first thing that comes to mind. Then the thing after that, and the one after that. Don’t wait too long in between. Often we start to analyze the quality of our ideas rather than focus on generating as many as we can. (“This won’t work. It’s no good, there’s nowhere to put that widget. I don’t know how this is going to look. I’m not sure I did this right.”) Engaging your critical brain too soon narrows your choices to things you already know about, rather than exploring the new, creative solution you haven’t discovered yet.

So don’t worry about practical details too early. Try thinking up five possible variations of a solution as an exercise. Just get them onto the page and out of your head as quickly as possible. You can always narrow them down later.

3. Stay open to new ideas

Sometimes we do one-word-at-a-time stories, where we create a story by each person in the group adding a word to the developing sentence. It often goes in completely unexpected directions, because someone adds something different or unusual along the way. And yet, somehow it always ends up following a standard narrative form and makes a kind of (bizarre) sense.

Once you have a number of new ideas, give them a chance and flesh them out. Don’t worry, you won’t start out designing an app and end up joining an acrobatic troupe (unless you want to). Your open-ended goal of solving the problem will guide you to focus on things that might actually be useful. Stay open to receiving new ideas. Take one step at a time and see what happens.

4. Be confident

The best scenes are ones where the participants are fully committed to whatever the situation is, and try to build on it any way they can. They are saying, “Yes, and…” The more confidently they can do this (“Yes, I am the director of a documentary film about a donkey farm that specializes in creating surrealist paintings, and we’re about to have our first gallery opening”), the funnier and more effective it is.

Donkey painting

Yes, I am a painter.

So commit to whatever your direction is. Once you have a bunch of ideas, try to confidently follow each one down the road, even if you don’t know where it’s going. Not knowing can be more fun than knowing. Not knowing leads you in new directions. The more you commit to this process of not knowing, the more and better ideas you’ll have.

5. Draw on what you already know

I know I just finished saying you shouldn’t think too much. That said, the best improvisers aren’t going in blind. They know how to build a platform for the scene, convey character and emotion, stay open to offers from their scene partners, and more. The magic happens when they combine their technical knowledge with that creative spark each participant brings to the moment.

You need to rely on your gut, but you also need a repertoire you can draw on. In design, this means knowing about the design process and the elements of design, as well as how to design and program in FileMaker. I like to research related fields, like typography, advertising, psychology, etc. and think about how they might relate to my design problem. Once you have a base of knowledge, you can use the problem at hand and your thinking about it to generate new ideas for yourself.

6. Let things fall into place

There’s a saying in improv, “If this is true, what else is true?” We use it when we’re trying to build a physical environment without any props, using only gestures, body and body language.

One at a time, each person goes onstage, uses and then leaves an imaginary object behind. No other information is given about where the action is taking place. The environment is created—and a story evolves—as each person adds something about where the scene might be happening. The challenge for participants, aside from remembering all the objects used by others before you—and where they left them— is first thinking of something to use that seems appropriate in that space.

So if someone is standing at an imaginary sink pretending to wash their hands, then what else might logically be in a room that has a sink? That depends on where the sink is. (A private kitchen? A private bathroom? A public washroom in a nightclub?) But if we accept that the sink is here and it’s “true,” then what else is “true”? (A roll of paper towels? A cupboard below the sink? A soap dispenser?)

This concept helps design thinking because instead of trying to plan everything all at once, you can focus on placing a single object, like a home button, for instance. If this goes here, then where does the next thing go? And the next? There are many possibilities, but placing one thing suggests natural locations for the next thing. This reduces the possibilities and makes design decisions easier.

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
— Albert Einstein

7. You can convey emotion without words

We often do scenes in gibberish, or silently, in mime. The goal is to convey emotion without using words, because words can distract you and obscure or confuse the meaning you’re trying to get across.

This is why we talk about “user experience.” Your application is not about labelling this or that functionality, but how it makes users feel, based on the colours you use, the typeface, or any associations it evokes to other things (both good and bad). Keep in mind the feelings you want your application to convey. Strong, confident, dependable? Fun, dynamic, exciting?

These associations could derive from the app’s purpose, or the client’s personality. Assess the emotional reaction you get from software you already use (Facebook vs. Excel, for instance). Make design choices that reflect the emotion you want the user to feel when using your software. Just imagine the user experience if you used only Comic Sans…

8. Don’t take yourself too seriously

It’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re ranting about how much you hate giraffes (but wow, is it cathartic!) The point of improv is to be silly, something that’s often lacking in our lives. Developers are a responsible bunch, and we really want to do a good job. But worrying about how important this job is or whether the client is going to like it interferes with your ability to let loose and see what ideas flow.

Giraffe

I hate you. Not really.

Designing should be a process of trying out different combinations of things just for fun. Sometimes I let my kids help design something. Often, we look at the result and say, “Yuck!” But, even those yucky designs teach us something, like “Now I see why those two colours do NOT go together!”

9. Don’t be too afraid of making mistakes

In improv or design, it’s important not to second-guess yourself too much. Often your first instinct is a good one, and there are no “wrong answers,” only bad follow-ups, as they say. Take a chance and throw something “stupid” out there. Occasionally you’ll find yourself with no idea how to get out of a ridiculous situation. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! Start over again, with a different idea.

So-called mistakes can lead to new avenues we hadn’t thought of before. But we have to be willing to take the risk of looking dumb in the first place. A lot of times, we hold back because we want it to be “right.” Forget about being judged, or judging yourself, it’s just paper. Ideas are cheap, remember? That’s the place to take chances, and do it “wrong.” Go for it.

Don’t stare at a blank page for too long, be bold, and make the first incisive stroke. The rest will come naturally.
— James Kingman

Conclusion

Designing can be challenging, but it should also be fun and engaging. Censoring yourself too much, especially early in the design process, shuts down the flow of new ideas. It’s important to learn specific design techniques, technical limitations and so on. But it’s also helpful to have an approach to design that lets you use all your hard-won skills in the most open, best way possible, and have fun doing it.

Unicorn

Just because.

Do you have a favourite way to generate new design ideas and become a better designer? Add them to the comments below.

P.S. My 9-year-old daughter did the illustrations for this post.  (She ran out of blue marker colouring in all that sky.) Why is there a unicorn thinking about an ice cream cone? Just because. Now that’s creative…

 




Alexis Allen

I'm a certified FileMaker developer based in Toronto. I've been developing applications using FileMaker since 1997 (version 3.0). I've always been interested in discovering what makes a good design work. I've designed solutions for desktop publishing, signmaking, packaging design, marketing and advertising. I have presented several times at the FileMaker Developer's Conference in the US. A lifelong student, I enjoy all creative pursuits.

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