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.

More book reviews

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

What’s a day in the life for an art director like?

What’s a typical day like for an art director? How does that compare to your days as an entry level graphic designer?

Anonymous (via Quora)

Each organization is a little different with its own structure and culture. I work with a project manager and editor on most projects. We meet the understand the needs of each client, the audience for the publication, and the specifics. For example, a photographer will be hired to shoot a cover and story.

Every project varies for us too. Different clients have their own levels of involvement. Usually with enough notes, so I’m often left to develop my ideas on my own. I use this information to decide basic ad and editorial placements, the order of the overall book. Ad designers and usually seek advice from our more experienced creative director. The creative director balance all of the projects within our company. If the schedule dictates, I’ll seek assistance from other art directors on our team. I may even be balances several projects at various stages at once.

In contrast to my days as an entry level ad designer, I now get to have a lot more creative control. At this point in my career, I decide what works for me with less oversight. While I’m still provided with a lot of information, as a newer designer the content had more direction on how it had to be presented. Now I makes more of the directions. This means less time actually designing pages, yet when in making mode I am implementing more of own solution and vision.

Tweet this post: “What’s a typical day like for an art director?” @sketchee answers #design questions

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

What are the most common graphic design mistakes?

Commercial design, as creative as the field is at its best, is about business as much as any other job. We have a reputation to uphold with clients, coworkers, and employees. While design itself is often subjective, addressing the most universal business concerns will get more people on board with your visuals. What are some of the most common mistakes made by working graphic designers?

The biggest error we make is to choose style over substance. Yes, we’re artists and ultimately really want to be able to make clean and cool designs. That is at the heart of our goal and we are trusted to make that happen in any circumstance.

When the client doesn’t like our initial idea, we ask respectful questions to understand their point of view and do our best to make it work. We kindly explain some of the basic thought behind our design decisions: white space helped this page look less cramped, the muted colors were chosen as not to distract from the quality photography, etc. Present yourself as a problem solver and at the same time acknowledge that these aren’t the only solutions to these problems. The visual communication tools we rely on may not be the biggest concerns of your client or their audience.

We can take the role to inform others about how design can be a useful tool for their business and bottom line. To be able to do this, we have to listen more than we speak. How can we propose solutions if we don’t listen to the other person’s problems? If we hear that this person is very concerned about their event deadline and respond with color and negative space, how are they going to feel taken care of? In that example, we might mention how discussing the basic design goals is the next step to move forward. Frame your goals in sincere terms of how it helps them.

Other practical mistakes that you can look out for are the basic specs of each job. These are the types of things that can save you and your associates money and build a better reputation. Check for low resolution images, exacting consistency (spacing, type size, typefaces), bleeds. If any of these issues require intervention from the client or colleagues be a neutral messenger explaining why this is an issue, the consequences of not addressing it, and clear next steps for them or you to follow.

Learn when and how to say no when you firmly believe anything doesn’t work and kindly provide a proposed solution. On the other side of the spectrum, practice accepting the word no from others when other solutions than yours are possible even if they are less desirable. If you’re not sure how to handle a situation, seek out advice. Build time in your schedule from the beginning for everyone involved to be able to review and resolve any issues. You don’t know what will go wrong, however something will and you’ll want to create time to fix it from the very beginning.

Any sane professional will want to support a colleague who prizes manners and etiquette. Even the less sane professionals will appreciate being treated as if they are sane.

Tweet this post: “Any sane professional will support a colleague who prizes manners and etiquette.” @sketchee on #designer errors

Readers, what designer mistakes have you encountered?

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

Android App Design for Web Developers

Mobile apps are shiny, new and still exciting for users and developers. As it turns out, designers can easily tap into all of this.

Somehow, over the past month or so I’ve dived fully into Android app development.  I’m a print designer normally. I focus on magazines and occassional collateral. I’ve done some infographic design which felt like a natural extension of print.  Sure, I was part of the web page club in high school. A few years ago, I knew table based web design. Then I moved to learning css.  This time, I thought I’d study some Javascript.  When I learned that Phonegap could package a website on to Android phones as apps, it seemed like a great way to learn Javascript. Give myself a simple task of making an app and learn from there.

From Google’s documentation: “There are essentially two ways to deliver an application on Android: as a client-side application (developed using the Android SDK and installed on user devices as an .apk) or as a web application (developed using web standards and accessed through a web browser—there’s nothing to install on user devices).”

Phonegap (Apache Cordova)

Phonegap, soon to be renamed Apache Cordova, is an open-source mobile development framework developed by Adobe Systems. It allows web based development with all of it’s visual and technical advantages and disadvantages. It also allows you to access native featurs such as the camera, gps and accelerometer.

In theory, you can develop cross platform apps with a single codebase. “Build your app once with web-standardsBased on HTML5, PhoneGap leverages web technologies developers already know best… HTML and JavaScript. Wrap it with PhoneGap using the free open source framework or PhoneGap build you can get access to native APIs. Deploy to multiple platforms! PhoneGap uses standards-based web technologies to bridge web applications and mobile devices.” I haven’t fully tested this, but reports are that the differences in various browsers quickly can come into play.

Be sure to try out one of my trivia apps in the Android Market. Let me know what you think I can improve.

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

Let Your Personality Type Choose the Right Design Career For You

Many people look at a group of designers and assume that every designer performs the same job, has the same passions, and will have the same lifestyle. This could not be further from the truth. Graphic design and web design are some of the most wide-open career fields in the job market. There are some jobs that suit some people better than others. If you have earned or are earning a design degree, you should consider what type of personality you have before committing to a job. Here are some jobs that are the best fits for certain people.

Larry the Leader

In every group there are chiefs and there are indians. If you are a chief, you naturally rise to leadership positions and have a knack for directing people. You might fit in well as a creative director. Creative directors are in charge of creative teams that produce artwork for various media and entertainment outlets. They make sure that all team members complete their work on time and at a high level of quality. Directors have the final say on products and services performed by their team. If you would enjoy an administrative position and can handle responsibility, this area of work might be right up your alley.

Tina Technology

For those who feel more comfortable in front of a computer screen than a sketch pad, design jobs requiring technology are growing more rapidly than ever. Web design has become an indisposible part of most companies. Web designers handle the layout, graphics, and continuity of websites. Their work is sometimes seen by thousands of people each day. The latest trend is the use of Flash, a multimedia graphics program from Macromedia. It is used to create interactive and animated websites, and is being used by nearly everyone. So for the designer looking to unleash the computer geek within, there is plenty of demand for designers in the tech industry.

Photo Phil

While some designers enjoy creating their artistic masterpieces from nothing, other prefer finding the beauty in things in the world around them. Photographers take a simple image and turn it into their work of art using equipment such as lights, lenses, and especially their creative vision. As we progress through the digital age, photography is evolving due to technology. Many people make careers as photo editors, especially through the use of Photoshop. Photoshop gurus manipulate photos to add even more  artistic value to them. If you are handy with a camera, you could end up in one of these professions.

Artistic Amy

Some designers are purists and just want to focus on the heart of the matter: the art. Illustrators transform ideas and stories into images that are used in printed materials as well as commercial products, such as greeting cards and stationery. Technical illustrators primarily use digital media to create illustrations. 

Brian the Businessman

There are some people that enjoy being part of large companies with widespread recognition and influence. These corporations need designers, too. Brand identities and logos are the products of graphic designers. These products must be constantly evolving to remain on the cutting edge. If you prefer settling into a single job, especially with a large company, you might fit well into this category.

These are just a few of the jobs that are available to graphic and web designers. Many designers are independent or freelance, so people who enjoy frequent change can find their niche as well. Now you can evaluate yourself and decide which kind of career is right for you.

About the Author

Chris Faires is a writer for My Colleges and Careers helps people determine if an online education is right for them and helps them search for online degrees that can help them reach their goals.


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