Designers should dance more

Last week I wrote about how humbleness should be a core competency for designers — I amend that statement that dancing should also be included and I’m equally serious about this one.

Drake is showing us how it’s done.

I must confess, I love to dance. Although I’m not necessarily a great dancer, but that’s not the point (see Drake above). The reason why I love to dance is not only is it one of the most amazing forms of creative expression, I believe it is one of the most effective forms of storytelling.

At SVA’s Interaction Design program, from day one, we’ve been taught that storytelling is at the heart of good design. Storytelling is how designers can connect and communicate with an audience. It also paints a picture of an experience. This is what resonates with people.

Parris Goebel is one of those dancers that I resonate with. She’s one of the most inspiring and successful dancers I’ve ever seen. Not only is she supremely talented in her style and technique, she’s amazing at painting a story with movement. She’s also notable for developing a sub-style of hip-hop called Polyswagg, where’s she’s incorporated her New Zealand roots by mashing together Haka style movement with the syncopated rhythm of hip-hop. It’s truly unique. She’s most famous for choreographing Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video, which you’ve likely seen since it has gone viral. But if you’re unfamiliar with her work, here are some examples:

A great example of Polyswagg
Royal Family Dance Crew performing an original compilation

Time and time again, she’s able to take a song, interpret its lyrics, and translate its meaning into precise and fluid movements. She’s able to beautifully orchestrate choreography seamlessly while unfolding a deeper story of the song. More importantly, she expresses this in her own unique style — Polyswagg. It’s original, unique, and frankly compels me start dancing.

The Gelsey Kirkland Academy explains best as to why dance is so compelling:

The reason why the great and long-treasured ballets such as Giselle, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and many others have endured is because of the power of the messages carried deep within and conveyed throughout the entire ballet. These vary from so many messages of love, commitment, hope, forgiveness, and often times, a sense of longing for the unattainable through the seeking of these truths. These physical messages, conveyed by mime and the character’s actions and movements become gestures, which when executed with understanding and commitment to what is being presented — keeping with the theme of the story and the moment to moment happenings — carry great weight. The smallest detail can be of the most vital importance, so intricately and thoroughly have these treasured ballets been constructed to carry along the story the ballet is telling from the first scene to the very end. — Rachel Wunder

Here’s a piece by Laura Edwards. She has a nostalgic and heartfelt interpretation of Lil’ Wayne’s ‘How To Love’ and she’s chosen to tell a story of being at a high school dance. It touches on first love, anxiety, social pressure, and the process of overcoming your general awkwardness. I’m sure we’ve all experienced something like this before. But what I think is amazing about this piece is how all of these narratives are communicated non-verbally.

Choreography for How To Love

Aside from the story line, it’s easy to see that there are distinct patterns in the movement, constantly reinforced for the duration of the piece. There’s a repeated chorus to reinforce the theme but also distinct sequences for each verse of the song.

It’s important to recognize that this is too is design: coordinating movement with intention. In fact that’s what choreography is, it’s compositional use of organic unity, rhythmic or non-rhythmic articulation, theme and variation, and repetition (thanks Wikipedia).

What does this mean for UX designers?

We can take some cues from choreography in order to craft an immersive, emotional, and memorable experiences. I’m not literally suggesting that our designs should dance (although that would be cool, I mean, that’s what animation is…more on this later), but we should strive to compose experiences that have organic unity. When we introduce an interaction, the movement that follows should be natural and understood non-verbally. How can we create these non-verbal cues? Well similar to Laura Edwards, we can reinforce a pattern of movement that’s in concert with the whole system.

A great example made by: Adrian Zumbrunnen

UX Choreography

Source: Rebecca Ussai’s UX Choreography article

Rebecca Ussai writes an excellent piece describing this concept of UX Choreography. Her UX background and her experience working at Disney has led her to discover that sweet spot between Motion and UX in order to tell compelling stories through animation:

UX Choreography is a combination of the how with the when and why — the proper techniques of applying motion and captivating an audience combined with the most integral moments in user experience where you can start engaging your user in a two-way dialogue.

I won’t go into much detail into her 5 principles, although if you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend it. But the parallels between dance and animation storytelling are the following:

  • Movement
  • Captivating the audience
  • Engage dialogue/inspire action

While the web has evolved a lot of the past few years (high five!), a lot of interactions have also become standardized. This is great for establishing best practices but it can also have the undesired side effect of a delivering vanilla experiences. What’s lacking is that Polyswagg, a distinct style and interpretation of these experiences. When you see something choreographed by Parris, you can recognize it instantly. I believe that designers should strive to achieve a similar effect, crafting stories that tell a deeper story of love, commitment, hope, forgiveness, or even a sense of longing.

Parris Goebel & Kyle Hanigami dancing to honor Etta James

So maybe dancing isn’t in our curriculum but I think it’s worth recognizing and acknowledging other disciplines that excel at storytelling. In fact, we should explore them. There could also be other relevant applications in design as well. Dance can help us develop a better sensibility and understanding of physical movement, which could help us design for gesture based interfaces. In fact Google is working on Project Soli, a sensor that can detect slight motions at high speed and accuracy. Needless to say, this will be a game changer for interface design and could replace the touch based interactions we are so accustomed to (tap, swipe, pinch, zoom, etc).

Demo of Project Soli, by Google

This is my rationale behind: ‘designers should dance more’, where dance can easily be substituted for other activities and disciplines. I believe that if we explore other forms of storytelling, we will become better at crafting original, memorable, and unique experiences.

So what’s your go-to dance move? What’s that song you can’t resist? If I haven’t convinced you, then you’ll have to join me out on the dance floor and find your inner Polyswagg.

Just dance.