As professional artists, we’re expected to practice our craft every single day. For dancers, the main way to do this is to spend time in class (for most of us, that’s every day, if not several times a day; full-time dancers are usually in class or in the studio 6–10 hours per day, 5–6 days a week). Aside from the physical exercise (which is an important element for performing artists), all of this time spent doing roughly the same thing has many benefits and side-effects. But in the world of product design, do we have an analog?
First things first: who needs technique?
“I’m an amazing designer. I don’t need to repeat some silly beginner’s exercises.”
— Some arrogant designer (definitely not you, though)
It doesn’t matter if you’re the principal dancer or if it’s your first day on the job, everyone does the same exercises and takes the same classes. Of course there’s room for more advanced versions of certain exercises (just as there are remedial versions for beginners), but by and large, everyone’s doing the same thing. What this does (on top of aligning your company and teaching them how to move together) is gives each dancer the opportunity to focus on different aspects of the exercise.
This is another one of the fringe benefits of doing the same sets of exercises day in and day out. I can’t tell you how many pliés, tendus, deep stretches, or turns-around-the-back I’ve done in my life, but having that level of repetition and familiarity means I can focus on things like what’s happening in the rest of my body (am I sitting into the opposite hip? am I displacing my ribs? am I activating from underneath? did I lose my turn-out? where’s my gaze/focus? etc.) on or the dynamics of the music (are we on 1 or on the and? should this be sharp/aggressive or more fluid? how do I sustain this movement until the next beat? is the accent in or out? am I using all of the counts) or on the movement quality (where does this movement initiate? is this more of a punch or a glide? how do I connect these two phrases?). One of the things we’ve been working on a lot in my Sokolow classes is phrasing; how you put movement together to create a coherent, standalone unit (much like the way you group words together). When’s the last time you thought about what a phrase looks like in the design context?
So, regardless of how accomplished, how senior, or how expert you may be, this type of repetitive, daily technique work is crucial to your work.
The other main benefit to this repetitive technique work is it gives you something to fall back on. Performing as a novice means you have to constantly attend to everything technique-wise on top of trying to remember choreography. Advanced artists can rely on their technique, freeing them up to focus on the task at hand (e.g. performance quality, reading the audience, choreographic specifics, being present). They know they’ve spent the time to invest in their instrument and in their technique, and they have time set aside to do so. They aren’t thinking about where their shoulder is on stage; they’re fully engaged in the act of performing. Imagine that: not having to worry about your technique so you can be fully engaged in your work.
Okay, I’m convinced. Help me understand what this looks like for dance?
There will be variations in each style (which is why dancers are usually recommend to train several but focus on one; as McKinsey would call it, T-shaped), but pretty much any technique has a series of exercises that build upon each other and are performed in roughly the same order in every class. Not every single exercise is required, but there are some staples that you’ll see all the time (e.g. there’s always going to be plies but you might not always get battement frappé). Exercises have many variants that the teacher can employ to fit the level of the class they’re teaching and/or to emphasize certain elements/aspects. Ideally, you can go through a class by yourself, though you certainly won’t gain the full benefit of being with others/being instructed.
Each technique has its own philosophy and set of core values, and this is what helps define one from the other. Some of the actual physical movements/exercises may be the same between two techniques (or, more likely, look the same but have a different effort/intention), but the over-arching philosophy is the important part. In Graham, that includes spinal rotation, the shift of weight onto a straight leg, and the contraction/release. In Sokolow, it’s a neutral, lifted sternum, the sensation of reaching out/down through the limbs, and the subtraction of any affect/indulgence in movement. Knowing how and when to employ which way of moving is crucial to a dancer, and that’s not even talking about aesthetic/artistic intention.
What does this look like for design?
For myself (and a majority of my peers), technique work is almost completely absent from everyday/professional life. Technique is something you either did in school and haven’t touched since, or maybe you go to workshops/conferences once a year to brush up on or learn something new. Sometimes, rarely, it’s something you do in your spare time because you’ve found something fascinating and new. At work, we’re usually expected to produce all day every day instead of having time dedicated to the craft. Even trying to Google for “UX Design Exercises” gets you a mixed bag of results, mostly pointing to interviews. If the only time you’re practicing your technique is in an interview, that’s probably a bad sign.
The world of design is wide and varied, so these exercises can take a variety of forms. A good place to start might be the exercises used in design sprints, as they’re usually designed to shake people out of their typical way of thinking or generate a lot of creativity quickly. UserTesting published a few exercises that, with a few tweaks, could be reusable. Improvisational Theater is another great place to look, as there’s a wide variety of games that could be adapted to a design setting.
On top of the strategic side of design, there are also the practicals of working within a medium. Many of us learned these in school (or early in our careers) and simply don’t go back and practice them again. If you’re an industrial designer, spend a few minutes playing with a new material (plastic vs. wood vs. metal). If you’re a graphic designer, choose a typeface or color palette you’re not used to (complementary vs. triad vs. analogous). If you’re an interaction designer, work at a level of fidelity you aren’t used to (always use Sketch? Try with Sharpie + Paper).
I’d be hard-pressed to prescribe a set of daily or weekly exercises everyone should do; pick what works best for you and for your team. What I would implore, though, is to work this into a daily routine (weekly if you really can’t spare 5–15 minutes a day). Taking time away from the day to day to either work on something different or give your current work a different approach will not only “sharpen the axe” and broaden your tool set but also give you fresh perspective.
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