Great Design is Improv: Just Let it Happen

Last updated on 19 September 2023

Sometimes, the best result comes from simply letting it happen. In the case of design, it’s about stepping back and helping others articulate their needs, rather than telling them what they need. The key is empathy.

Great design feels inevitable.

The idea is simple, yet profoundly powerful. If something is designed well enough, one should look at it and think, “Of course it’s like this; how else should it be?”

It serves as something of a benchmark for designers when solving any problem, “Does this feel inevitable? Is there a better way for me to solve this problem?” Jony Ive talks about it in terms of creating products with care, Ajaz Ahmed talks about it as one key to successful innovation.

When we see an example of truly great design, it is both surprising and obvious.

Naoto Fukasawa even talks about design being spontaneous rather than natural, because the word spontaneous “does not provoke any sense of intentions (sic).” Paraphrasing both Ive and Fukasawa, people perceive and appreciate great design on a subconscious level. When we do finally notice it however, we have a sort of aha-moment, where we are struck by what we perceive as that design’s inevitable harmony and logic.

Stop pushing it.

Ok, so we want great results, but how do we achieve it? TJ and Dave, recent guests on this Radiolab podcast, have an interesting take on that.

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi do improv comedy, but not like most other improv acts. These guys go onto an empty stage with no script, no planning, and no audience involvement, and improvise a complete, hour-long show. In essence, once the lights go up, they just stand there, looking at each other, until one speaks and sets the stage.

From there, a rich story unfolds, with its own characters, rhythm and twists. The story is completely organic and unique: they don’t plan it in advance, nor do they repeat it at a later show.

Sounds impossible, right? At least extremely risky, but they succeed every time by applying a simple metaphor to their process. They see the story as “already happening” and their role is simply to listen for it, pick it up at some point, and “physically represent it for 50-some odd minutes.” They don’t create the story, they’re simply along for the ride, “listening and paying attention” to “what the story is doing.”

The key is to “respond honestly to each tiny moment, from one little thing to the next little thing.”

As the two comedians (designers) take each other along this journey from moment to moment, the story (design product) crystallizes and takes form. Similarly, members of a design team respond to each other, taking each other along the journey from decision to decision until a product takes form.

Listen actively and respond honestly.

Overplanning will keep you trapped on the wrong path. Overdesigning will keep you trapped in people’s way.

We often start design projects with the baggage of false assumptions, which result in bad requirements. Anyone in a design team can set bad requirements based on false assumptions: “This product needs a connected app,” “We need to gamify this for engagement,” “Minimize the number of steps at all costs,” “They won’t see it, if it’s below the fold.” The antidote is simple, yet often quite difficult.

At each moment in design, ask “why” and be truly open to the answer.

Lots of designers like to just start sketching and think about solutions without properly thinking about the problem. Instead of filling in the blanks though, our job is to provide the blanks and help others fill them in.

Whether we’re dealing with users or stakeholders, we are here to help others articulate their needs. For that, we need empathy.

P.S. Click here to listen to the podcast on Radiolab; it’s a great short story, well worth the time!