You Never Run Out of Chocolate Syrup

And Other Design Lessons in Improv.

Last month I finished an eight week long Improv 101 class, where we learned to fake-cry in front of strangers and shout things out in lists of five. Here are five things about improv class that scared me initially:

  • Public foolishness, weird silences, uncertainty, falling on stage. Street parking.

And here are five things I love about improv now:

  • Public foolishness, weird silences, uncertainty, falling on stage…

And the fifth thing I love especially, is how similar the tenets of improv are to my work — to the practice of UX designers, design thinkers, and people for whom creativity is a group effort. 🙌

And improv, it turns out, is a fantastic example of collaborative making. In this post, I’ll highlight ways improv mirrors and informs design processes. Whatever you’re making with other people — shows, stories, products — that process demands openness, demands space for discovery.

So wait — what’s improv?

Basically, improv is the art of creating stories with no script, no plan, no props. The philosophy of improv prides itself in interactivity and audience engagement. You’re given the initial material — gold or not, it’s on you to build something with it. It teaches you to be scrappy.

“Hey, give me an object you use everyday. Anything!”

“Dildo!”

Keegan-Michael Key describes the process as jumping off a cliff with your teammates. You’re grasping not even at straws sometimes, and still you have to spin together something people care about. A way of co-creating out of nothing.

Here’s five gnarly principles that translate off-stage.

1. Yes And.

In improv, nothing is wrong. You can never run out of chocolate syrup; you can be flipping a pizza and say you’re “filing taxes.” This doesn’t need to be reality; this is storytelling. When you deny your teammates’ offer, the fantasy is over and the audience will cringe.

“No, but — ”

Likewise, brainstorm sessions fizzle out and halt because someone decides that something just doesn’t make sense. That it isn’t feasible, clever, legal, whatever. If you say flat out, “No, but a Star Wars character can’t be a sandwich,” then how are we going to move on to more extraordinary things?

So say “Yes and,” or even better: “Yaaaaas and!” See if you can escalate what your teammates suggest. What if they’re Jar Jar Binks Banh Mi’s — and signed by President Obama — and hand delivered to your current location via drone?

Or… if it’s really a terrible idea, suggest something better. “No, but,” helps no one.

2. Leave it Open (Stop Pre-Planning.)

After class, many of us confessed to pre-planning what we’d say or do in a given scene. And yet you noticed, the crazy stuff that made everyone laugh came out of an unexpected reaction.

Exercises in diverging helped counter this tendency. For instance, the “5 Things” challenge to warm up. Here’s an example from class:

“Off the bat, list five hairstyles you wish you had.”
“Uh… Afro! Bald! Dreadlocks! Reverse mullet! Just-got-outta-jail!”

This reminds me of the design question: “How Might We?” which helps generate answers without getting attached to any specific one.

How might we make commuting easier in the winter?
How might we incentivize healthy eating at school?

Diverge, then converge. I’ve seen where people come into workshops stuck on a certain arbitrary constraint. Workshops where the output HAS to be an app, or HAS to use this industry standard API. This kind of thinking not only makes me sad, but also kills discovery for the whole team.

3. Emotionality

We’d often start a scene with a physical action. Someone begins rowing a boat, and someone else is stretching. A novice blunder is to comment on the action itself:

“No, man, you want to hold the oar like THIS.”

No one cares about the right or wrong way to hold an oar, do pilates, milk a cow. That’s not a compelling story.

Instead, pick a relationship to the other person. Make it emotional. You’re not just rowing, you’re passive aggressively trying to out-paddle your brother, who you’ve always been jealous of.

Apathy is what happens when we get caught in the features and what something can do. But empathy and giving-a-damn happens when you tell me about a person as if they were as real as you. How do they relate to a group of people, to a marketplace, community, society?

We throw around the “empathy” word a lot. But make sure the user you illustrate is real enough to deserve it. Which brings us to…

4. Specificity

An exercise from class: “What are some objects you’d find at a used car dealership?”

“Used car!”

“Sleazy salesman!”

“Wacky inflatable waving arm tube man!”

The best, stickiest stuff was always crazy specific. Like wacky inflatable waving arm tube man, or “bulk packs of Poland Spring.” And you never drive just a “car” — but how about a nice sensible Honda Accord with fuzzy dash dice? 🎲

Specificity makes things real. It makes us remember and care. And importantly, it forces you to know your user or audience, and how your unique thing will help their unique need. It’s never just a “health app,” and your user is never just any “senior citizen.” Truly, it’s often better to super-serve the detailed needs of a few people than try to make something “helpful” for a generic someone.

5. The Audience Is Right

Finally, if you get a shoddy suggestion, then work with it. If an audience member gives you nothing but crickets, that silence is also on you.

As our instructor oft said, “You always make yourself the asshole, NEVER the audience.”

So this one’s straightforward: Whoever you’re making for matters more than your work, your idea, your ego. It’s user experience 101, eh? Though be careful — what’s good for a customer is not always good for a user.

You’re always listening to your team, and always listening to the audience. Improv, like design, is ultimately a practice in listening and humility. ☕️