Can Improv Teach Us About Graphic Design?

After listening to the audiobook of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson, I thought a lot about how the book’s tips and techniques apply to my work life as a designer. The book takes the idea that we are all making up life as we’re going along. The practical tips that are studied in improv classes everywhere can apply to life and work.

What is Improv? Wikipedia’s current definition sounds a lot like our work itself, doesn’t it?

“Improvisational theatre, often called improv or impro, is a form of theater where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed. In its purest form, the dialogue, the action, the story and the characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script.”

This isn’t about being careless or spontaneous for no reason. We have goals and values. As a designer, you prepare and study to create work that’ll solve problems and achieve your goals. We plan for a long term future and with our values in mind, and we make up our own path to get there as we go along. When it’s time tackle a project, it’s time to use what we already know to create a decisive solution.

Let’s look at Madson’s improv maxims and see how to apply the ideas in making our design work easier:

Maxim #1: Say “yes”

The first and probably most well known guiding principle in improv is to say “Yes and…” Part of what this means is accepting a situation as it is. Then accept what we can add to it. In theatre, performers practice accepting what they hear from others without expectation. Rather than try to mold what they hear to fit their own notions, improv performers flow with it. If I say I’m holding a large cat and another performer says it’s a tiger, it’s now a tiger even if I was just thinking of a fat house cat. 

When we see problems in a situation, we are really deciding that the current moment isn’t what it’s supposed to be. The project, the page, the overall design brief… it is what it is. The current moment has happened. It can’t be more like the last project. And it’s too late to prevent what has already happened. Live in the present.

Maxim #2: Don’t prepare

“Don’t prepare” as a maxim isn’t about giving up the idea of planning. We will still think of things that could happen and come up with what behavior we expect of ourselves. This maxim is really more about listening and being present in the current task.

We habitually think about what we’re going to say next so that we can sound super smart. We do this rather than listen. That’s how we’re defining negative preparation. Listen to the client and let go of our own ideas of what is supposed to happen next if they don’t fit. If we are amidst a project and we’re distracted by another task that’s ahead of us, we’re not doing our best work. Be smart rather than try to appear smart through future preparation.

Maxim #3: Just show up

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Woody Allen

Sometimes we put off tackling our work. We’re busy imagining how great our next design will be. We’re worrying that it won’t be everything it’s supposed to be. If you want to be a great designer, you just design. Make good work. Create terrible work. Get it in front of clients, published, get it online, get paid for it. Show up to the party.

When you think of why you love your friends and family, is it because they secretly think about you and never tell you? It’s likely that they always show up in your life. Whether it’s a random text or a day out in the park, you appreciate the people that show up even if it’s just once a year at a family Christmas or at a high school reunion.

It’s the same in our design work. The best designers are known because they have came through by getting their work done. Our bosses, clients, and coworkers… They just want something on a page. From there we have something everyone can discuss and love.

Maxim #4: Start anywhere

It never really matters where you start does it? If it’s just picking a type face, coming up with some colors, or having some grand concept… You’ve probably came up with incredible designs based on any basic exercise. So come up with some exercises that get you started.

In improv theatre, it’s often better to say anything than to have a silent stage. Figure out what materials you have, start playing with the ideas, come up with the worst and most terrible ideas and be okay with that. Release yourself of the pressure of starting in the right place at the right time.

After you’ve finished reading this, think of a project you could be working on and start. Then think of any next step. And keep thinking of steps. Eventually you’ll be done.

Maxim #5: Be average

Thinking that the current opportunity is the one where you need to come up with perfect solutions often just helps us feel like failures. Let yourself off the hook and let yourself expect average or even terrible work. I have to design magazines everyday. I have deadlines. Most of the time just getting something on the page is the goal. It’s often when I have the tightest deadlines and can’t really think that I end up with some of the most inspiring magazine layouts.

This also means giving up the concept of originality and perfection. The most creative and cool ideas aren’t really that original or perfect, they remind us of something we know. It turns out that striving for something you know and doing it well is the more effective goal.

Tackle your next project as if it didn’t have to be perfect. See what happens! Rather than try to come up with original ideas, tackle practical problem such as guiding the reader through the design. A drop cap isn’t just a pretty decoration, this helps the reader find their way to the text. Colored backgrounds and white space help separate elements.

Maxim #6: Pay attention

Our attention creates our own reality. We have the potential for great control over the world around us just due to how we interact with our senses. On the next step of your next project, attempt complete focus. Notice how your attention drifts and attempt to pull yourself back.

Try to notice something new everytime you work. Notice the way you look at your design, what sparks change, where your ideas seem to have come from.

When interacting with others, give them your undivided attention. How does this manifest? How can this have advantages for you?

On that note, are you able to read this article with your undivided attention, without judgement, without thinking about your own views and tasks?

Maxim #7: Face the facts

Wishing things were different isn’t going to change today’s realities. Identify the problem and a possible solution, even it isn’t ideal or will create other problems. That sidebar looks awkward? Yet if you move it, everything will move. The sidebar is still not working in this design and facing that problem is the only way you’ll be able to improve it. Even if you’re “losing” all the work it took to get there, you wouldn’t know what was right for the design if you hadn’t went in the direction you started from. So imagine you are on stage and you have to tackle this right now to keep the “scene” moving. Then take the next step.

Maxim #8: Stay on course

Just as I was saying when we started exploring improv as it could apply to design, ultimately we have goals. On stage, improv performers have an ultimate goal to entertain. You’re probably familiar at this point with the various goals of design. Helping readers interact and understand content. That is a form of entertaining.

When you’re not sure what to do, remind yourself of your purpose.

Maxim #9: Wake up to the gifts

Optimism isn’t about feeling good, it’s a useful tool in your arsenal. You can’t do great work if you don’t accept that as one of the many possibilities. Notice all of the skills that equip you to be a great creator of things in this world. How many people have believed in you to get where you are? How much help have you received to become better at this kind of work? That we are in a place to do work that is personal and creative is a gift in and of itself. Don’t forget to look on the bright side now and then

Maxim #10: Make mistakes, please

You’re going to mess up. One of the things I’ve definitely learned as a designer is that I can’t please all of the people all of the time. We can’t anticipate every need of every client. They just won’t know design enough to be able to ask for what they really want. Chances are, I won’t know enough about their business at times to hit the nail on the head. Some really great work can come out of making a mistake and then taking the opportunity to correct it.

“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” Bob Ross

So many designers are willing to fall prey to negative emotions when initial feedback isn’t stellar. Instead, we can look at this “mistake” as a chance to come up with something better with a new understanding. This means that you’ve taken some risks and put yourself out there. Own your mistakes as part of the creative process. 

Maxim #11: Act now

Perhaps it’s no surprise, especially at this point in the article, that improv is about taking action. We may not feel like doing something, this doesn’t mean we can wait forever. You do things everyday that you don’t “feel” like doing. You have very good reason to. Tackle familiar tasks in new ways, make it a game to try something different.

Try something new with your designs. Ask a friend or family for feedback or to look at your portfolio. Put yourself out there in a new way.

Maxim #12: Take care of each other

Help out others. If you want to really know your value, provide your skills as a value to others. I’ve worked as a designer for fifteen years and one thing I’ve learned is how much knowledge I actually have. Guess what, after all this time I still worry about doing a good job. When I tell this to new designers they are often surprised.

Having this blog and the Uncanny Creativity podcast have given me a way to help others know they’re not alone in their challenges. I always take time to talk to our interns from all departments about their career paths and to see what I can do for my coworkers, even if it’s just moral support. I also do random acts of kindness in secret. I often bring in snacks for everyone at the office and never tell anyone that I was the source. When others bring in their own gifts, I also take time to thank them and seek out the source. Little things make my work easier.

Maxim #13: Enjoy the ride

 “If something is not to your liking then change your liking.” Patricia Madson

Lastly, have fun! Joke about things, remind yourself it’s just design and it’s not really that serious. Improv is about creating entertainment from nothing. Improv performers practice together by playing games. Getting up on stage is a nerve wracking thing for people. Yet don’t they look like they’re having fun? They’re not thinking about any of this, they are just trusting themselves and what they have practice. We all wait in line so that we can enjoy the roller coaster. Now that you’re on the roller coaster, don’t miss the joy by being anywhere else but here.

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Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.



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