How Improv Made Me A Better Designer

June 22, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Posted in process, projects, Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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By kevindooley

Creative ruts are frustrating and suffocating. The sad thing is that we all go through it! For the past 4-5 weeks, I have been taking improv classes at The Basement in Atlanta. While I can’t say I’ve become the best improv actor or even a decent actor, the lessons I extract from each Thursday evening have become valuable and insightful in mt overall creativity. Improv stretches your thinking and forces you to become more intuitive. Since the classes, sketches and ideas have been erupting into my notebook.

So how do the principle of improv apply to you as an artist?

    1. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid– any idea will do.

    I don’t know too many creatives who aren’t perfectionists. While we are raising our standards for ourselves, we’re also running the risk of losing golden ideas by dismissing them too quickly. When I would sit down to do concept art, the only ideas that made the page were ideas I approved in my head. No one is going to look at your sketchbook. If something tumbles across your mind, sketch it down. Purge all ideas, even stupid ones, onto the page.

    During two-person scene exercises, one of the players would have to come up awith a scene on the spot to act out. Most of the time, the most mundane ideas would progress into hilarious skits.

    2. There is always something to add to a scene.

    Those mundane ideas would progress because the players would add different elements to the scene. Adding elements also solidifed the setting. We did an exercise where we would have to name as many different objects in a room as possible. For example, one of our settings was a guy’s bathroom. After naming out the obvious elements, the players started to name other things like “the broken soap dispenser,” “the amateur graffiti in the stalls,” “the gross, outdated pink urinal cake,” etc. (Okay, sorry for the visuals. LOL) After we named the basics, we were forced to stretch our creativity and imagination to find more to add to the setting.

    So if you were designing a logo for a automobile-related company, what kind of elements could you play with? After you sketch the obvious, what other related elements can you add to your notebook? License plate? Dice in the mirror? Seat belt? The grill? Create a pool of images to play with.

    Beware, however, that you do not compromise simplicity. In the two-person scenes, we were encouraged to add but not to add so much that the scene becomes convoluted, confusing, and unbelievable. For now, just purge out all your ideas but know to subtract and narrow down later.

    By Darren Hester

    3. Look at what you have and adapt to it.

    Okay, I modified the original lesson a little bit. The original reads, “Look at your body posture at the moment and adapt to it.” It is easier to improv a character based on your body as it is now than to come up with a character and then adapt your body accordingly. When you do the latter, you often get so caught up in trying to act and sound like that character that you neglect the relationships on stage. The scene never progresses anywhere.

    As designers, we may sometimes try a little too hard to make the most perfect, most zen, most powerful logo and we end up aggravated when it’s just not happening. Stop and look at the sketches you have now. Interrogate each concept: is this concept aligned with the purpose of the logo? Is it conveying what the client wants? Is it straightforward?

    Now, how can you improve it?

    4. Always pay attention to what people are saying and doing.

    The improv warm-up exercises were, oddly, some of the most insightful. Games like Zip Zap Zoey, King Monkey, and Patterns forced us to pay sharp attention to the flow amongst the group. It challenged us to memorize, multitask, and stay focused all at once. The point of these games? In improv, you will have to bounce actions and reactions from other players on stage. To be a coherent part of the scene, you must develop a good ear for certain phrases and concepts as they happen and extract/expand them.

    Ideas come from the least unexpected places. If you want ideas, don’t tune out your surroundings and try to visualize ideas in your head. Tune INTO the nearby conversations and activity. Someone may say or do something that sparks a new train of thought and lead you to a new idea.

    5. If you get lost or reach a dead end, return to your original intentions.

    When a player on stage would get stuck in a scene, it helps to simply return to that character’s original motivation (i.e. wanting that damn cookie, trying to cheer up a friend, trying to get rid of the nosy neighbor). When we add elements to a scene, we may find that the scene has become so complicated or has strayed so much that the player may not know where to take it.

    Similarly, we can become enamored with a couple of concepts and run with it until we reach a dead end. Return to your first sketches. Return to those notes you scribbled at Starbucks when you met your client. Return to your conversation with the client. Examine the original intentions of your client and yourself. Can you find a different path to reach those objectives?

I would have never imagined that improv classes would be so insightful to me. They gave me solutions to tackle creative blocks. Stretch your imagination, play with your sketches, and pay attention. Leave no idea out; bad ideas, after all, can lead you to good ideas.

The downside is that improv is not something you can practice alone. If you live in the Atlanta area, I highly recommend taking the improv classes at The Basement! They also have shows at 8 & 10 every Friday and Saturday. If Atlanta is a bit of a drive, Charisma Studios in Marietta will be offering an improv course too! If you don’t live in the area, please look up where improv classes are being offered in your city; it is WELL worth it!


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