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Cognition

Going Off Script

I have a confession to make: I was a theatre nerd in high school. The heights of my nerdom were reached when I joined an improv troupe that was aptly named “Awkward”—a ragtag bunch of 16-year-olds literally making it up as we went along. Perhaps you remember our renowned performances at the local Chick-fil-A?

I have largely left the world of improv behind, but the lessons I learned from Awkward have surprising resonance with the more abstract aspects of my job at Happy Cog: brainstorming and ideation. Like a great piece of jazz or an off-the-cuff sketch on Saturday Night Live, novel work can result when we integrate improv thinking into our creative approach. Here are some maxims that hold true across disciplines.

Set parameters

In a typical improv scene, the performers create characters, atmosphere, and narrative without a script. But it’s not a free-for-all. Usually, the audience is polled for a “seed”—a location, a word, a relationship—that will inspire the performers. This provides structure without being restrictive.

In design, you enter the ideation phase with a little more ammo: a brief, perhaps some stakeholder interviews, a content audit. There are still any number of directions to take. Setting parameters can provide a starting place.

Use only the color blue. Draw with only 45° angles. A recent Happy Cog redesign used only system fonts. Imposing restrictions allows us to focus less on formal matters and more on problem solving.

“Yes, and…”

The granddaddy of all improv rules? Never say “no.” If I tell my partner we’re on a safari, and she says “No, we’re actually on an airplane,” where can the scene go from there? Accepting what your partner gives you and building upon it is a quick way to generate ideas, regardless of how strange they are.

On a recent project, my colleague Dana and I employed switch design during our ideation phase with a similar purpose in mind. We worked on separate concepts, and just when we were getting comfortable with them, we swapped. I didn’t erase what she had started on. I elaborated on it. It helped us look at our work with fresh eyes while allowing both concepts to stretch and grow.

The harder you try to be funny, the less funny you’ll be

In improv, many see a failure to make the audience laugh as a failure of the performer. In reality, the success of a scene should be based on whether you’ve told a coherent story with well-defined characters. Humor arises when those things are done well.

Similarly, our focus at the beginning of a design exercise should not be on pixel-perfect solutions. Focus on ideas, however crappy they may seem. Scribble. Cut and paste and move stuff around on paper, not in Photoshop. The more you strain to come up with one visually stunning or conceptually brilliant mock-up, the more likely you are to end up banging your head against your monitor. If something’s not working, move on. The messier things get, the easier they are to refine—and the more there is to amalgamate when heading towards something high-fidelity.

Be weird

Improv encourages weirdness. Comfort zones can and should be stepped out of. The most memorable scenes are those that delight because we don’t see them coming.

The same should hold true for design. It’s easy to grasp at “safe” ideas or convince yourself that clients won’t want to move in an unusual direction. And sometimes that’s true. But if you can, do yourself a favor and embrace strangeness. Make connections between unusual things and draw inspiration from their intersection. Here at Happy Cog, we presented an “out-there” concept to a client—a website based on the Doppler effect—and you know what? They moved forward with it. As our design director MJ once wrote in an email, “BE WEIRD. We’re all friends here.”

I encourage anyone and everyone to take an improv class, and not just because of the parallels I’ve mentioned above. You’ll feel more comfortable speaking to groups. You’ll learn teamwork in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Making a fool of yourself will seem less scary. And the next time you’re presented with an empty stage and no script, you won’t panic. You’ll start playing.

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