How Improvised Theatre Can Make Us Better Designers

In my line of work, I facilitate a lot of workshops, and make a lot of impassioned presentations. However, I struggled to get the right message across, and bring people together.

I decided I wanted to improve the way I communicated, but Toastmasters is so not my jam (get it? Jam…on toast…anyway…)

So I turned to improvised theatre, and I had a blast. Along the way, I noticed that quite a lot of what I learned in Impro (“Improv” for Americans) complements how we should behave as designers. (As an added bonus, I’m better at the whole workshop thing now).

Here’s how you can apply improvised theatre to your design work, and be a better designer because of it.

  1. It’s not all about you
Do not listen to this hashtag

One of the first things we learn in Impro is to make your partner look good. In Impro, you rarely act in a one-person scene. You will have a partner on stage, and in order to make the scene work, you have to listen to what they are saying, and look at their body language to understand what character they are, and what scene they think they’re in. They’ll do the same with you. You’ll also be paying attention to the audience to gauge their reactions. In this way, you muddle together something that works — for you, your partner and your audience.

(You might call this listening and paying attention thing “empathy”).

Rookie improvisers often charge on stage with a fully formed idea in their head about what’s going to go down. When this happens, the scene derails because the person can’t let go of their idea, and the partner and audience are dragged along, confused.

The same thing often happens in the design process. One person (or a group of people) will have a vision about how they think something should be or work — my idea is the best! Despite user research, subject matter expertise, and technical limitations, they’ll insist on things following their vision. It’s all about them.

Don’t be that person.

Making it all about you means that no one will want to work (or improvise) with you. Instead, listen to other people’s ideas. Look at their body language to understand how they are feeling about the situation. Your team members are your partners on stage in this sense.

Allow all these ideas to be tested with your users — you never know what result you’re going to get. Your users are your audience — listen to them!

Impro isn’t about making yourself look good. It’s about creating a great scene, together. Similarly, design isn’t about making yourself look good. It’s about delivering great design, together.

2. Yes, and?

I think in my third or fourth Impro class we touched on the magic of Yes, And.

We all have a tendency to immediately pick holes in other people’s ideas or solutions. It is VERY easy for us to shoot down an approach without offering any suggestions ourselves.

Obviously when you’re on stage, it doesn’t work so well if your partner makes you an offer (E.g. “Let’s go to the park!”) and you refuse (“No!”). Instead, an improviser will use “Yes, and” to build on their partner’s ideas:

“Let’s go to the park!”
“Yes, and then we’ll get an ice-cream!”

This technique allows us to create a scene that actually goes somewhere, instead of bouncing phrases back and forth. The same technique can be applied to brainstorming sessions or workshops within design. This technique is also called out in IDEO’s Brainstorming Guidelines.

When someone offers an idea, use “Yes, and” to build upon it.

If you’re REALLY not keen on the idea , you can say “No”, nicely, and suggest something else. It takes a lot of guts to try something new, so help that person out by supporting them in doing so. Always make an alternative offer.

3. You’re going to fail. And you’re going to be happy about it.

My new Motto

The great thing about Impro is that it allows us to simply jump on stage and start doing things. This gives us freedom, but also the potential to stuff it up.

But that’s OK — you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. You grow as a performer. Stuffing something up the first time is embarrassing, but it also gives you an “ah-ha!” moment — you figure out what to do the next time you’re up there.

Similarly, good design embraces failure — no one designs the perfect interface, solves a problem perfectly, or even identifies the problem correctly the first time. But that’s OK — you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.

Be happy that you have failed. You’ve learned something.

Impro isn’t about giving a great performance each time. It’s about learning what works in a scene and and letting go of the fear of failure. That’s when you get the freedom to act out the wild ideas. Similarly, design isn’t about delivering perfect, complete designs each time. It’s about experimenting, learning, and having the freedom to try wild concepts.

4. Make your “audience” comfortable with failure.

Sometimes in Impro, your scene just flat-out doesn’t work. It’s slow, it’s boring, and you’re all standing there making cups of tea with housemates who like each other. You can feel the audience start to squirm in the seats. It’s awkward for you, and it’s awkward for them.

So what do you do? You scrap the scene, shout “AGAIN” and try something else.

In moving forwards, the improviser has owned the failure and has shown the audience they are at ease with it. So, the audience learns it’s OK — expected, even — and moves right along with you. Awkward scene forgotten.

In design, we’re sometimes confronted with disappointment from our UX-adjacent stakeholders, when concepts or tests don’t quite work out as we’d hoped. Just as if you are on a stage, our stakeholders in particular need a similar sense of comfort from their “performer” — i.e., you — that it’s OK to fail. We know it’s OK — that’s what design is. But your stakeholders may not.

Commit to your failures. Think about how you can change what you’re doing. Recognise that a failed concept, A/B test, workshop or visual isn’t necessarily a reflection on you — it just didn’t work in the context. You pick yourself back up and try something else. You work with your team to think of other ideas that might solve the problem.

And herein lies the key message:

You tried something and failed. But at least you tried.

Do you know how many people don’t try anything new, ever? Because of fear, because of perfectionism, because of that-won’t-work, because ah-well-this-is-the-way-I’ve-always-done-things?

How boring.

You tried something new. And you learned.

As children, we’re encouraged to try new things, and we’re not scared of that. As adults, we’re told to stick to the status quo. We forget how to have a go. Fear takes over.

Impro helps us re-learn how to be fearless. Be fearless in your design work too.

Now, go and try something new.

Fail. Be happy about it. Learn.

With thanks to SEEKers Kayla Heffernan & Danya Azzopardi, and Impro Melbourne’s Artistic Director Katherine Weaver — #happyfailure.