Improv theatre techniques create the conditions to embody the design space through collaborative action, as a generative tool that provides structure through constraints in the creative process for designers. This research will demonstrates what improv theatre principles are and how they relate to design, as well as identify precedents using similar theories and opportunities as the ones I’m exploring in my undergraduate thesis.
To strengthen skills, Improv actors practice techniques through exercises, games and activities; the methods demonstrated in this research use the conditions of this space. Exercises refer to a singular task or sense to be activated and flexed, games refer to the generation of play and silliness that can induce cognitive or physical flow, and activities refer to a series of intentioned tasks to reach a collective goal. The main principles of Improv theatre can be described as:
- Yes, and…
- Creating collaboratively.
- Showing up, as you are
- Failing awesomely, often.
- Anything and everything is interesting and inspirational.
- The framework for the workshops is rooted on embodied collaborations within the creative process through both individual and group activities.
Improv and design are both social in nature and create from an unknown space in the early stages. During the creative process of design, principles of improv are optimally utilized at the ideation and iteration phase (see Fig. 1). The d.school of Stanford University has done the most effective work around Design Thinking and Improvisation. In an email conversation with Erik Olesund Teaching Fellow at d.school, he mentioned that “when I (or most people at the d.school) use the word design we refer to the process of solving problems in a human-centered and collaborative way… It is the way to the solution (process) not the solution itself (artifact) that we see having a lot overlap with improv theater” (E. Olesund, personal communication, October 21, 2015). The goal of using improv theatre techniques in design is the exchange of tacit knowledge when a group of people create together rather than in isolation. Improv’s framework provides the container for divergent thinking and rapid form development, shifting a designer’s reaction from patterned and automatic to conscious and playful. Having the ability to spontaneously react to one’s internal and external environment throughout the design process is crucial . With these exercises designers can begin to broaden their responsiveness and imagination to new ways of problem solving.
At the height of rapid consumer culture and environmental degradation, the fashion industry is built on efficient standardized processes that avoid risk and uncertainty . How can a shift towards more sustainable practices in the fashion and garment industry take place? Current fashion design practices involve conventional patterns that contribute to 15% fabric waste at the cutting stage . Zero-Waste Pattern Cutting (ZWPC) is an alternative cutting technique that addresses material waste at the design stage in the garment lifecycle. What tools are designers missing or do they need to be more autonomous from groupthink? How do you create change without risk?
Theory into practice
My undergraduate thesis investigates opportunities of improv theatre techniques as a methodology for the early stages of design, which aims to create a platform for fashion designers to work with ZWPC. The research involves determining its optimal use and ability to provide value as a generative tool to facilitate collaborative embodied cognition in material and design practices with less risk . A series of co-creative sessions are activated by the facilitator (myself) guiding the group (design team) to gain cognitive collaborative flow, and progressively work through activities that: (1) highlight an aspect of ZWPC (2) the group can identify some key take away pieces (3) the group can later discuss, reflect and analyze.
I had the opportunity to facilitate a co-creation session with the design team at the Lululemon Lab. A 45 minute session, including warm-ups, ideation games and iterative ZWPC activities, including one called “Cutting and…”. It involved each participant improvising their own cutting technique, and then collectively choosing one of the 5 new techniques to create a garment with. Divided into 2 groups, they each had 10 minutes to construct a garment and were then asked to do a “walk off” to explain their designs. The objective was for each individual to ideate a cutting technique through improvisation, then choose as a group one technique to iterate a garment with. Working in this way, the group can identify the most viable option to move forward with.
All 5 participants embodied a “yes and…” attitude of spontaneity, creating collaboratively and engaging in the process. There was a significant increase in their energy with comments of delight and intrigue in the potential of this as a tool for fashion designers. Further research with user validation is underway and opportunities for material artifacts are still being realized.
Once designers begin to identify improv theatre techniques as a tool, they can adapt this as a methodology for their creative process that benefits their collaborators, users and end product. In closing, Gerber notes that “the value of improvisation is in the potential it holds to unleash creative action for individual designers and design teams…although there is much work to be done to blend the rich traditions of improvisation and design” .
Thank you to the Lululemon Lab design team for their participation in this research study and for donating the materials used in the session. Big thanks to those who have provided valuable insight throughout the course of this project: Keith Doyle, Hélène Day Fraser, Timo Rissanen, Louise St. Pierre, Anna Dixon, and fellow design peers.
-  Gerber, E. (2007). Improvisation Principles and Techniques for Design. San Jose, CA: ACM CHI, 2007. https://dschool.stanford.edu/sandbox/groups/k12/wiki/73bac/attachments/4ffd 6Gerber_Design_Improv.pdf sessionID=4a0b9f72819331fd36a92ede4be5c622d3af2923
-  McQuallan, H. Using Design Practice to Negotiate the Awkward Space Between Sustainability and Fashion Consumption. International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institute (IFFTI) Conference Proceedings, 2009. http://www.iffti.com/downloads/past_conferences/ LCF,%202009/McQuillan_Holly.pdf
-  Rissanen, T. (2005). From 15% to 0: Investigating the Creation of Fashion Without Fabric Waste. Creativity: Designer Meets Technology conference, Copenhagen, 2005. https://www.aca demia.edu/3762020/From_15_to_0_Investigating_the_creation_of_fashion_without_the_creation_ of_fabric_waste
-  Schleicher, P.J., Kachur. Bodystorming as Embodied Design. Interactions Nov-Dec, 2010. 47-51.