Improv and Design Thinking — more similar than you imagine

Improv Comedy — More human centred then you imagine

Lights up, a young man full of energy appears on stage. He approaches a woman and exclaims “Doctor, our worst fears have come true”. With a calming tone, the women replies “It’s ok Anton, I’ve been preparing for this. Hand me a pickle”. “But what about the zombies?”, the man asks shockingly. The woman stops and looks at the young man for what seems like an eternity, and finally breaks the tension with nonchalant remark: “You know I can’t move when I’m hungry. Hand me the pickle!

And so we begin. The doctor and Anton, going back and forth, building context and making surprising decisions that delight the audience in front of them.

Design Thinking — It’s all made up!

Pens down, eyes up. Auntie Lim, 79, is telling is us what she thinks about video about an inter-gernerational childcare facility. “People won’t like it — everyone wants quiet and children are very noisy”. “But what do you think about it?”, we ask patiently. “I like it. The kids are cute and I like to take care of people. I think I will be very happy if we had this”. “Interesting, tell me more”.

And so we begin. Our interviewers and Auntie Lim, going back and forth, building context and sharing surprising insights that delight the team in front of them.

At surface level, Improvised Comedy and Design Thinking seem totally unrleated. When we think of Improv, we think Whose Line is it Anyway?. When we think of Design Thinking, we think of firms like Ideo and Frog. In terms of leading men we think, Ryan Stiles vs David Kelley.

But despite these differences, if we look a bit closer, if we take a step back, we can see some common traits.

I’ve been an Improviser for 2 years, a Design Thinker for 4, and a problem solver for 25. Here are the things which, for me, make Improv a very complimentary skill for Design Thinking.

1) People and Stories

Characters vs Personas . Narrative vs User Journeys. Plot vs Context.

People and their stories are at the heart of both the art of Improv and the Design Thinking methodology.

Good improv is about strong characters and exploring the relationship they have with each other. The more the players understand the character’s objectives, needs, wants, hopes and fears the better the scene. Taking the time to explore where the character is at, helps them react honestly to others and the environment around them.

Good Design Thinking starts with empathy for the user. The more you understand about the lives of this person, the more you can identify and articulate their objectives, needs, wants, hopes and fears the better your solution will be. If you take time to explore, you will be able to find new ways of delivering value that is both appropriate and sensitive to their context.

2) Trust in a Messy Process

Improv scenes are messy. Design Thinking projects are messy. Life is messy.

Despite this, both art forms provide frameworks and process to make things a little less messy. As Improvisers and Design Thinkers we practice these patterns outside of performance and projects, building muscle memory, so that when we are tested with the real thing, instincts take over and things work out ok.

In Improv we follow certain rules like “Yes And”, “Make Your Partner Look Good” and “Embrace Failure” and take time to deconstruct what makes a good scene. We start by establishing characters and relationships. We build a world and explore what’s unusual. We edit and pace ourselves to manage tension with our audience. We calibrate with our partners and those watching to find the suprsing. Every scene is different, but quiet often, our thought process follows similar patterns.

In Design Thinking, we take exceptionally undefined problem or opportunity areas and move through a process to create a very defined solution. We go through our stages of Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Jumping from one phase to the next, and always iterating to sharpen the truth. Stepping back to see the big picture, and stepping in to see the minor details. Every project is different, but quiet often, our thought process follows similar patterns.

We trust that things will be ok, because without that, things fall apart.

3) Success is Magical

It may not always work, but when it does, it’s quite often magical.

The nature of both Improv and Design Thinking means that success is not guaranteed. A big part of the philosophy of both is that we should “reframe success” and recognise that “failure is fine”.

In one of my favourite Improv longform scenes (runs at about 25 mins), the team take the audience suggestion of “Karl Marx” and builds an engaging, funny, crazy, yet believable story of a Sandwich shop with a twist (I won’t spoil it for you, please watch).

We see compelling characters, an interesting story and a farcical plot develop in front of our eyes. The audience follows as things unfold and is delighted with each surprising twist. Everything makes sense in retrospect, and the odd ideas thrown out during the scene weave together to a beautiful narrative. It all comes together. Almost as if it was written.

I think part of the satisfaction of improv is the vulnerability we show. It’s the openesss to the undefined, and bringing everything together so it makes a little more sense.

This “magic” holds true to Design Thinking projects too. The best projects are the ones that seem so obvious once someone has connected the dots for you.

Take for example the story of the Embrace Infant Warmer, an incubation device that cuts the cost of hospital incubation by 99% making it accessible to rural India and saving countless lives.

Many babies die due to hypothermia and if the baby can be placed in a hospital incubator, their chances of survival increase significantly. Trouble is these things are expensive.

Armed with this information, the team realised the solution would be to make a cheaper hospital incubator. But after exploring more, they realised that this wouldnt help at all.

From the insight that many of the hospital’s incubators were going unused because the babies who needed them were often born in villages thirty miles away, the team created a new solution that was totally appropriate for the context of their user — instead of a cheaper hospital incubator, they made a blanket to keep the babies warm. Magic.

There are many other reasons why Improv and Design Thinking are complimentary skills (the rules, mindset, building safe spaces and more). As a Design Thinker I highly recommend taking some improv classes — it will make you better at what you do. If you are in Singapore, give me a shout and come along to our next Improvisation for Design Thinkers course.