The Theatre of Design
What graphic designers can learn from the actor’s craft
I. “Though This be madness, yet there is method in’t”
In “How Designers Become Storytellers” Karen McClellan touches upon a core tenet of an effective designer’s philosophy — the ability to tell an engaging story — and follows up by offering a model for designers to successfully interact with clients based, wonderfully enough, on the format of The Great British Baking Show. It is my intention to briefly expand further on these thoughts, and bring my background as both an actor and an art director to bear on what is an important and timely conversation for designers to have.
And it is timely. US Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for graphic design and related fields paint a picture of an industry trending towards conceptual thinking and away from the physical realm almost altogether as developing technologies continuously reshape demands for novel user experiences. This can render conversations revolving around the design of any given product painfully abstract, and deepen the gulf between designers and their prospective clients.
But there is a field which has dealt with the ephemeral, the enigmatic, the immaterial nature of human communication for hundreds of years: the theatre. And actors — the storytellers at the heart of this practice — have gone so far as to build systems by which they can translate the fleeting qualities of emotional truth into concrete actions. Indeed, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the godfather of modern naturalistic acting, defined an actor’s job as the ability to “convert thoughts and feelings into living terms”.
Actors move through these methodologies in order to build their characters, inhabit them truthfully, and engage with the audience effectively. It is from these fascinating sets of practices that contemporary designers can glean insight into what compels clients to support their specific vision for a project, how best to interact with them regularly once they do, and how to maximize the quality of their work at every stage of the design process.
II. “To be or not to be, that is the question”
“Hamlet is not a guy like you.” So said Stella Adler, a founding figure of the American acting tradition, and a student of Stanislavsky. In saying so, she was urging actors to do two important things: understand their character’s physical, social, economic and geographical circumstances intimately, and from this meticulous level of research to draw conclusions that will inform what is important to that character.
For example: only by understanding that Hamlet (and indeed Shakespeare who wrote him and the audience who first watched him) subscribed to an understanding of the universe dubbed “the chain of being” handed down to them by Medieval Christian belief can an actor grasp the importance of Hamlet’s predicament. The Chain of Being described a hierarchical structure of all life, and clarified the inter-dependencies of every class of person. The commoner relied on the nobles who relied on the prince, who answered to the king who was ordained by God himself. Thus, Hamlet’s personal grievances towards his uncle and his fear for the corrupting influence of his own negative actions take on grander implications for his country and everyone who depends on him. His is a family drama, but the world quite literally hangs in the balance.
What can the designer learn from the actor’s perspective? Certainly, that one should do their due diligence, research fully the nature of the client’s brief and treat every individual project as an entirely new enterprise requiring a unique approach. But more than this, a designer may strengthen their client acquisition and retention skills through a deeper understanding of how to invest the client in their vision. Using their research, which importantly aught to include a series of client interviews as well as any relevant market analysis, a designer may craft a brand narrative that engages with the client on a personal — not only a professional — level. This means telling an intimate story, framing the narrative in terms of what is at stake, and what may be gained. Speak to the central problem of the project, humanize it, then offer up not just a solution but a vision by tailoring your pitch to suit the client’s own worldview. Doing so will excite and invest the client in the designer’s specific and unique approach to the brief.
III. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action”
For actors, an understanding of what is most important to their character is one thing, what they do about it onstage is quite another. Master acting teacher Uta Hagen described how an actor’s “search for the circumstances, the relationships, the objectives, and the obstacles must have their consequence in actions”. Having researched and emotionally invested in their character, actors learn to translate this into physical actions in order to communicate to the audience their character’s state of being.
In keeping with our previous example: Hamlet’s heart is heavy with the stakes of his predicament — does he kill his uncle, knowing it may stain him irrevocably, or does he take drastic steps to ensure his uncle’s festering crimes do not endanger the health of the nation any further? The actor must render these thoughts into physicality, or the audience is lost and the play goes nowhere. They do so by assigning actions to each of their character’s spoken lines. In one scene Hamlet spies upon his uncle as he prays, contemplating whether to murder him then and there. He may reach out to him, he may grasp and brandish his knife, he may himself go down to his knees and beg for guidance, mirroring his uncle in a twisted, but revealing fashion. All these actions are infinitely do-able, keeping the actor engaged from moment to moment with what is most important for and about Hamlet, thus “[telling] the story of the body and soul of [the] character” to the audience.
An understanding of actions and their practicality may aid the designer in managing client expectations, since actions impart proper focus to the actor and the designer alike! Often it is a designer’s instinct to emphasize why the choices they made are the right choices, but avoid justification and speak to the strength of the design instead! Describe what it does for the product and you will find that during client interactions you are communicating more effectively, moving the design process forward, and ensuring that you and the client remain on the same page, always. You will also find that in talking about what the design achieves, you more effectively validate your choices than by defending them directly, since — like an actor expressing the emotional state of a character through actions — you reveal more by showing rather than telling.
IV. “Listen to many, speak to a few”
The actor playing Hamlet has done their research and emotionally invested in the character. They have assigned themselves concrete actions to express that character to the audience. But, even then, their work is not complete, for an actor does not, cannot act in a vacuum, and it is the presence of others onstage with them that makes up a crucial third of their work: the spontaneous creativity of interaction.
Much of what we learn about Hamlet comes not from what he says or does, but from how others speak of him and what they do to him. Or, more specifically, how he reacts to what they say of and do to him. The actor playing Hamlet must be open and receptive to his fellow actors, or else his rendition will read false, stale. Discovery has as much to do with the success of the actor as preparation, and it was Stanislavsky himself who said that “without absorbing from others or giving of yourself to others there can be no intercourse on the stage.” And intercourse, interaction, is essential to moving a story forward.
To the designer, the client is audience and scene partner both, since their work is for the client’s benefit, and is also dependent on their input. Ergo designers should not balk at communicating creatively with their client and instead work to be as receptive and empathetic as possible, as there is plenty of room for discovery during client conversations.
Ask questions, invite feedback, never dictate and do allow for failures. In this way, you as a designer will foster a collaborative environment and an ethos guided by empathy, and the quality of your deliverables will grow. Project briefs will resonate more deeply with clients if they are seen to respond to them directly and personally. Mock-ups and prototypes will be inherently more successful if they retain elements initially discovered in conversation with the client, making them feel valued in the process. Do not be afraid of improvisation! Ultimately, discovery is exciting — for both the designer and the client — and will knit them closer together.
V. “This above all: to thine own self be true”
Stella Adler also said that “growth as an actor and as a human being are synonymous”. She recognized that the primal urge for storytelling was at the heart of what makes us human, and what makes actors worthy. That same desire to communicate lies at the core of good design, and so it must be that growth as a designer and a human being are also synonymous. Everything that makes a good person — a keen sense of observation, a rich imagination, their capacity for self-reflection and their ability to take action and listen well to others — all these things directly contribute to the success of a designer’s work, and speak to their abilities and personality as a designer.
If you as a designer can do your research and craft a brand narrative that resonates with your client on a personal, emotional level, if you can speak effectively about your design and avoid rationalizing your process, if you can listen well, and ensure you are as open and receptive as an actor is onstage, then your client management skills — and indeed your work as a whole — will improve. Dramatically.
Adler, Stella, and Howard Kissel. Stella Adler: the Art of Acting. Applause, 2001.
Davis, Meredith. “Introduction to Design Futures.” AIGA, 2016, www.aiga.org/aiga-design-futures/introduction-to-design-futures/.
Hagen, Uta, and Haskel Frankel. Respect for Acting. Macmillan, 1973.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea. Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
Stanislavsky, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. Routledge, 1989.
Stanislavsky, Konstantin. Creating a Role. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
- My thanks to Barry Barresi for the inspiration & Laura Vogels, whose insights helped shape this article.
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