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Improv & Design

Authored by: Ken Cao, Sr. Graphic Designer

As an improv performer, the art of improv permeates every aspect of my life from relationships to how I meet new people. So, of course it would find its way into my job as a graphic designer.

When you think about it, improv and design really aren’t that different; they’re both a means to create something from nothing.

  • Through improv, performers create a world to explore from a one-word suggestion, aiming to establish relationships and connections with humor.
  • Design is about bringing ideas to life visually, often telling a story to evoke emotions.

These are broad definitions of complex and multifaceted arts, but there is a clear connection between the two. As an example, let me explain my creative process, through the lens of an improviser.

 

IDEATION AND CONCEPTING:

During this stage, my goal is to identify the project’s objectives, and find solutions to confront the challenge in a clever and exciting way. Once the objective has been established, I move onto the fun part – brainstorming. It’s important at this stage to not marry yourself to any particular idea, but to explore every avenue you can think of. This is where improv tactics can help.

Yes And
In improv, one of the first rules we are taught is to “Yes And.” This means you must support any idea that is presented to you, while also adding a piece of information to build onto the story. When applied to design, “Yes And” allows your brain to freely explore different avenues of thought without judgement. Not every sketch needs to be perfect, nor does every idea. Give time, thought, and love to brainstorming ideas and be ready for them at any moment. Some of my best ideas are while I’m walking my dog or in the shower. #showerthoughts

This can also be applied to group brainstorms. Think about it like there are no stupid ideas, or rather, every idea is equally stupid. It’s crucial to never kill an idea at this stage; save that for later. Even when you hear an idea that isn’t to your liking, while our initial reaction is to discredit and point out why it wouldn’t work—instead try to see how you can contribute to it.

Now that we’ve established a safe environment for our ideas to grow, let’s talk about how to evolve concepts even further.

A to C Thinking
This is a tool that improvisers use to quickly generate ideas from a single suggestion at the start of a show. The goal is to take an audience member’s contribution and free associate at least two degrees away from the initial word.

(Example: pineapple > hand soap > surgical procedures.)

The purpose is to generate multiple ideas, so not every scene in an improv show is about pineapples. When applied to design, A to C thinking can really help you expand concepts and uncover solutions that may not have been obvious from the start.

 

DESIGN & EXECUTION:

Improv won’t teach you what good design is or how to use Adobe CC, but it can inject some inspiration into your process. These are some improv concepts to consider while designing.

Patterns
Patterns are everywhere. They are found in nature, in our music, in the golden ratio, and in improv – because people are naturally drawn to them.

In improv, a pattern is a game of repetition. A pattern is formed by beats, which is an event that happens in a scene. You don’t notice the first beat; it is the second beat which establishes the pattern. By intentionally repeating the first beat, a pattern is formed that can be repeated three, four, ten, twenty times in a given scene. With comedy, the rule of threes applies, where the pattern garners a maximum effect at three beats (or you can really go for it, by repeating a beat a ridiculous amount of times for extra laughs).

Designers create patterns all the time, even without thinking of them as such. Flashing back to design theory in school, I was taught, “the use of repeated visual elements is a technique designers commonly employ in [. . .]. By repeating design elements, you create a consistent visual experience that can help with user experience. Patterns make it easier for users to focus on the content because they know where they can find specific types of content. . .”1 Some examples can be: pulling elements from a logo to create visual aids throughout the rest of the brand or using photography that matches your color palette. When I design, my goal is to weave together a concept that repeatedly refers back to itself, creating that consistency and relationship that will hopefully resonate with users.

Being Genuine & Vulnerable
One of the basics in improv is to try not to be funny. All the great improvisers I know strive to play characters as real as possible, and the laughs happen on their own. Improv has also taught me a lot about being vulnerable, to express my emotions in front of an audience of strangers.

As nerve-wracking as it is to be on stage for improv, it can be equally anxiety inducing when presenting your creative for the first time. Design is very subjective, and everyone has an opinion about what works and what doesn’t. . .similar to comedy. I’ve found that when you let go of the pressure and allow yourself to be vulnerable, the authenticity comes through and results in work that resonates with yourself and others. Be genuine, be confident in the work and your team (and your clients!) will follow.

Gifts
A gift in improv is information that you share that may help develop the scene, the character, the story, etc. For example, I can gift a scene partner by sharing that her “curly red pigtails really bring out her eyes.” Now she knows that she has curly red pigtails, and that can inform her character. In improv we have a saying, “there are no mistakes, just gifts.” There’s no wrong answer when you’re playing make believe.

And I would argue that this saying applies to design too. There aren’t wrong solutions to a problem. Don’t feel discouraged by or throw away concepts that a client doesn’t choose. Those may come in handy someday. Save them and maybe even keep working on them. In the same vein, other designers can gift you with ideas and perspectives that may have not been obvious. And in the spirit of collaboration, explore their contribution! Even Leonardo da Vinci had apprentices help him paint his masterpieces.

A friend once told me that “art informs itself.” I never understood it until practicing an art form completely unrelated to design; that has truly pushed my artistic self forward. After learning improv and seeing how it applies to my creative craft, my drive to experience life has only increased. If art and design are how we visually reflect ourselves to the world, we must constantly be growing ourselves so that we can constantly be growing our work. I was lucky enough to find improv as my first foray into a hobby, now my eyes are wide open to new experiences and how I can reflect those experiences through my own artistic lens.

1https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/repetition-pattern-and-rhythm