The Shape of Design

by Frank Chimero

Improvisation and Limitations

The first step of any process should be to define the objectives of the work with Why-based questions. The second step, however, should be to put those objectives in a drawer. Objectives guide the process toward an effective end, but they don’t do much to help one get going. In fact, the weight of the objectives can crush the seeds of thought necessary to begin down an adventurous path.

The creative process, like a good story, needs to start with a great leap of lightness, and that is only attainable through a suspension of disbelief. The objectives shouldn’t be ignored forever, but they should be defined ahead of time, set aside, and then deployed at the appropriate moment so that we may be audacious with our ideas.

To begin, we must build momentum and then reintroduce the objectives to steer the motion. I find the best way to gain momentum is to think of the worst possible way to tackle the project. Quality may be elusive, but stupidity is always easily accessible; absurdity is fine, maybe even desired. If the project is a business card for an optician, perhaps you imagine it is illegible. (This is in the spirit, but you can do better.) If it is a brochure for an insurance agency, imagine otters on the cover and deranged handwriting on the inside for the copy. (Further!) If it is design for an exhibition of Ming Dynasty vases, brand it as an interactive show for kids, and put the vases on precariously balanced pedestals made of a shiny metal that asks to be touched. (Yes!)

The important realization to have from this fun — though fruitless — exercise is that every idea you have after these will be better. Your ideas must improve, because there is no conceivable way that you could come up with anything worse. We’ve created the momentum necessary to slingshot us toward a desirable outcome by stretching our muscles and playing in the intellectual mud. Now is the time to take the objectives out of their drawer and use them as the rudder to this momentum. We must steer our ideas, but we can be less discerning than if we were starting from scratch, because progress at this point is going in any direction. Any step is guaranteed to bring you closer to the border that marks the end of bad ideas and the start of good ones. Even wandering is productive, so that is precisely what should be done.

The way one creatively wanders is through improvisation. Now that the objectives are in front of us again, we can use them as a way to guide our ambling and riff on ideas. It sounds strange, but I suspect that while you are riffing, you’ll find yourself reusing parts of the awful ideas you created earlier. The bad ideas have been documented and captured in some way, which turns them into a resource that can be mined in the process. New and better ideas will certainly come as well, but mixing the two speaks to the cumulative nature of improvising and the special sort of presence it requires. Ideas build on top of one another, and to do so well, one must be in the moment, actively poking at the current situation to use its opportunities as material for construction. Formalizing the properties of improvising is valuable, because it ensures that one can respond to the moment in artful and fitting ways before it fades.