A new project to inform design practices with lessons from the performing arts.

3 minute read

I’ve been quiet lately, and that’s largely due to my recent move to NYC. Madison was great, but it was time for me to find new challenges and a new home, and NYC is the natural choice given my careers in both tech and dance. My intention was to continue to pursue both as much as I could, with the goal of joining a touring dance company and then settling back into a full-time role in tech. However, thanks to a lot of really interesting interactions and conversations, something else (in addition?) has come up.

What can the design world learn from dance?

It all started with a not-so-innocent question.

People I meet have always been fascinated with my background. It turns out there aren’t a lot of professional dancers who also work in the tech industry. The idea to start talking about my background more than casually came from one of my trips back to Madison for Kanopy. Josh Zimmerman, a long-time friend and co-organizer of DevOpsDays Madison, knew I was in town and needed someone to fill in as a last-minute volunteer.

At the conference, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to a lot of really smart, friendly, interesting people. One of those, Emily Freeman is the person that planted this seed. She’s a developer evangelist, and makes part of her career out of travelling and giving talks. She urged me to look into becoming a speaker, as it would be good for business, good for the industry, and could make a little cash on the side while getting paid to travel. I took her up on that offer, and started noting interesting differences between my life in tech and in dance.

Fast forward to March. I hear about the NYC Service Design Jam which, coincidentally, is the same weekend as my first performance with Sokolow Theater/Dance Ensemble, meaning I can’t participate or mentor, but I can volunteer. I email the organizers and get a slot for Saturday. One of NYSDJ’s organizers, Tim Gilligan, also has a background in theater, and we hit it off.

Tim’s actually the one that pushed me not to just think about the differences between tech and dance, but to look at fully integrating the two; what can design learn from the world of performing arts?

Research, Design as performance

As artists, we train and we rehearse. As designers, we…?

So, one fateful morning, Tim and I meet at Capitol One’s awesome design offices for coffee, and the topic comes up again. We start brainstorming, and come up with some really interesting, exciting ideas to explore. The conversation roams from role of research as ego separation to what rituals frame our design practices to how we prepare researchers and designers for high-stress environments (study sessions, 2-week sprints, etc).

As artists, there are all sorts of things we do to prepare ourselves for the stage. We practice technique in class. We rehearse the performance. We hang lights and design light plots. We practice spacing on stage. We gather an audience. We put on makeup and costumes. We make an entrance.

As designers, what do we do to prepare ourselves? What are the techniques we train? What are the rituals we perform to put ourselves in the right frame of mind? What are they for your day to day versus a sprint planning meeting? How does that compare to a design review? To a user testing session?

The Path Forward

Follow along the ride.

Excited and energized, we both wanted to continue exploring these ideas, hoping to satisfy our curiosity but also give back to the design community. Down the road, who knows where this might go (including nowhere), but for now, the plan is to publish short essays exploring these topics (and more) on Come along for the ride there.

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