Improvisation, Creativity, and Design

How you can use improv exercises and techniques to power creativity and open up new ways of thinking in your product design process.

8 minute read

Originally posted on

I’m certainly not the first person to write about the role of improv in creative processes, its value in broadening ways of thinking, creating general good-feelings (which, interestingly, go hand-in-hand), etc. However, the majority of what’s been written so far pertains to using improv exercises in group dynamics and doesn’t address its potential as a design tool.

Part of the inspiration behind this post is my recent participation in one of Improv Everywhere’s “MP3 Experiments”, in which a massive number of strangers volunteer to interact with a recorded set of instructions in a public space. The instructions started off with some simple walking games (red light/green light, remote control, etc), evolved into those that involved more interaction (follow the leader, the selfie challenge, freeze tag), and eventually culminated in a massive drum circle/orchestra (or, the “drumstick finale”, as they called it).

On top of being a lot of fun and encouraging interaction between strangers, it was structured in a way that opened individuals up to greater levels of complexity and creativity, both individually and collectively. Part of the “magic” of it was the sheer number of participants, but there’s value in integrating these types of improv games without the massive scale.

Improv and Content Generation

Having worked with dozens of different choreographers (in a variety of stages of their careers, from a variety of different backgrounds/lineages), there are many different choreographic processes. Some are very methodical and specific about what they’re looking for, others less so. One thing that seems fairly consistent throughout, though, is the role of improvisation.

Different artists use it in different ways, but at its basis, choreographers tend to rely on dancers to generate content. They may simply give an idea of what they’re looking for (“something fluid”), others will generate some sort of phrase themselves and have dancers try to mimic it, riff off of it, etc. Others still have set this work (or something similar) in the past and are drawing off of that, yet they still will let dancers “play” with the movement to find something that suits them best.

There are many benefits to this approach. For one, it helps align choreographer and performer: by allowing the performer to interpret the movement, they’re more bought into the process and into the work of art being created. Even if the end result doesn’t use any of that dancer’s generated content, giving them input is beneficial.

“If I am going to dance with you, then you should probably choreograph with me. So, we all dance together and we all choreograph together”

Second (and, generally, the most beneficial), it gives the choreographer something to work with beyond what’s in their head/body. Sometimes a choreographer doesn’t know exactly what they want until they see all the pieces coming together, or they see something happening on someone else’s body (as opposed to feeling it on their own; mirrors be damned). By providing an external point of reference, choreographers are given something to react to separate from generation, which makes fine-tuning possible.

Lastly, each dancer moves differently, so letting them try it themselves both exposes weaknesses and highlights opportunities for the movement phrase. Each dancer will interpret movement ideas differently, and because everyone moves differently, the end result will be something unique. That process of interpretation and projection into movement may create something novel that the choreographer hadn’t initially thought of.

Improv and Creativity

One of the interesting things about the MP3 Experiment (that I partially predicted) is how they encouraged people to use everyday items in novel ways. We were instructed to bring two metal spoons, a cardboard container, metal container, plastic container, and a bucket. Over the course of the experiment, we used the spoons as balance tests and as drumsticks, buckets to build towers and as stepping stones, and ultimately all of the containers became our drum set.

This is an extremely lightweight version of a creativity test known as Guilford’s Alternative Uses Test. You may’ve heard of something like this before, where you’re given a simple object (“paperclip” and “brick” are common) and you have a limited time (traditionally, 2 minutes) to come up with as many possible uses for that object. Results are measured on 4 main categories: fluency, originality, flexibility, and elaboration. It’s an excellent test of divergent thinking, which is a crucial skill in the early stages of a design process.

What Alternative Uses is, at its core, is a mental improvisation exercise. The most successful at this task are typically able to think about the object in a variety of situations, using its different qualities/characteristics in a variety of ways. A paperclip is typically thought of as an office supply design to hold two things (notably, paper) together, but when you start thinking of it in other ways (what if you have 1000 of them? what if you have a really big one? what if you had a wooden one? plastic? metal?) you begin to come across novel opportunities.

Improv and Design

Alternative Uses isn’t just a test, though. You can make this an extremely potent tool in your design arsenal. Guilford’s classic test is an excellent way to get your team thinking about other ways to solve your current design problems. Start with the 2-minute, random everyday object version to help people understand the problem and get those creative juices flowing, and then evolve the exercise to focus on either a) different ways people could possibly use the product/feature, or b) different ways to solve the problem the current feature/product solves.

Improv is also a tool that absolves responsibility. When you’re trying new things and playing games, it doesn’t matter if your ideas are completely off the wall, infeasible, or whatever. Improv is an opportunity to break rules/push norms within a safe, constrained context. Every team should, periodically, throw out their design and try something new, if only to ensure they aren’t getting stuck in local maxima. Doing so as a strategic maneuver could be extremely costly, but in the context of a 60-minute improv session, it’s a golden opportunity to explore new ideas.

Improv tools can also be useful as a facilitator, which is what Hannah du Plessis focused on when she explored improv as a design tool. du Plessis lays out some common group rules of improv, which are useful to keep in mind when you find yourself in any stressful/precarious situation.

  1. Be Present
  2. Accept Fully
  3. Respond Truthfully
  4. Commit Completely

Improv and Strategy

We’ve already discussed how improv can be a useful tool for exploring different avenues and options, and for generating content to play with. These all fold into a larger lesson about how these exercises and practices can be used to guide and fuel design strategy as a whole.

Oftentimes, especially early in the discovery phase of projects, there are multiple directions design can go, each with their own pluses and minuses. While there are many ways to explore these different options, the freeform, unbounded play embedded in improvisation might be one of the more efficient methods.

Next time you find yourself stuck considering multiple options, instead of sitting in a room having a debate about it with your team, get everyone together and spend half an hour with some improv games to see which seems the most plausible, which generates the most excitement, which produces outcomes with the most fluency, etc.

There’s certainly a danger of introducing bias (via fluency specifically), but it’s also a low-cost way to explore alternatives, and even if you don’t ultimately go with one of the less-common options, you may learn something from the exercise that you can integrate into whatever the final solution may be.

Improv and You

Now that you know the variety of ways in which you can apply improv into your design process, you’re probably wondering exactly how to do so (what exercises work best, how to get buy-in from the team, what the target outcomes/deliverables are, etc.)

There’s certainly no shortage of options when it comes to exercises, but some clearly work better than others. Avoid anything that’s more of a follow-the-leader or a reaction game (e.g. most of the games listed here). I’d also shy away from anything too close to Service Design’s “bodystorming”, which is an effective tool in its own right, but not what we’re going for.

One particularly interesting technique (that also calls back to our discussion of Embodied Cognition) is borrowing from mask work in theatre. When acting, wearing a mask changes the way you have to interact with the world and with the audience, and by embodying that mask, it changes the way you think, move, and feel. If your product/idea/service had a physical manifestation, what would it look like? What would its characteristics be? How would it walk, talk, laugh, etc?

The other major consideration is how and when to put these exercises into practice. If your team/department has weekly meetings or critiques, this is a perfect time to throw one of these 5-minute exercises into the fray. We get so set into our habits and our ways that it can be challenging to think differently, so using a structured tool can be beneficial.

Plus, the more often you do it, the easier it gets, and the easier it gets, the more open-minded and flexible your entire team is when they confront novel situations (which, as designers, is all the time).

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