Group Work

Designers are inherently self-critical. This quality is what allows us to produce engaging and relevant work, but also what can slow us down. The ability to trust your instincts and be decisive is a mode of thinking that not only helps with public speaking, it puts you in an active place creatively.

This epiphany was an unexpected benefit of the Introduction to Improvisation class I recently completed at IO West in Hollywood. I originally enrolled in the course in hopes of improving my public speaking skills. So did the handful of attorneys in the class, who were there to burnish their courtroom presence, and the cadre of actors, who were looking for ways to get loose for auditions. But the course taught me so many more lessons I could apply to my work as a designer.

When I first arrived, I expected to find a room filled with people crafting one-liners and trying to steal the spotlight. But instead I discovered something much deeper and more interesting: the power to make a real connection with an audience doesn’t come from one superstar; it comes from the interaction within the group. And the best way for individual performers to bolster the group is by listening to your collaborators and then making bold choices, even if they aren’t quite sure where those choices will go. Ambiguity is the enemy, because it gives your partners little to work with. 

Here’s an example. During one of the first classes, two people started a scene with a powerful prompt: discussing custody of their child. A third person walked on stage, and he clearly had an idea of where he wanted to take the scene. But just as he appeared, one of the two original characters said, “Who do you love more, son?” Instantly, he was forced to drop his pre-conceived notions of who his character was and where the scene was going. He had to make new and completely unexpected choices without thinking where they would lead.

In the parlance of improvisational comedy, this is known as “Yes, and. . .,” a fundamental rule that encourages collaborators to expand on each other’s ideas rather than rejecting them. And because of it, a scene that could have turned sober went in so many weird and funny directions.

Designers, of course, have a different role to play, but our core aims are not all that different. We need to listen to our collaborators, and make bold, provocative choices that they can respond to. Not every choice will be a winner, but the ones that give our teammates something they can “Yes, and. . .” will spark their creativity, taking the design in wonderful and interesting directions that no one person might ever have imagined.