A Better Design Thinking Process through Improv Theater

Improv theater techniques can strengthen all stages of the design thinking process, from building user empathy to creating product prototypes.

Not convinced? Unsure how improv relates to the design thinking process or how it can improve it? Fearful that you need to be a trained comedian or a theater major to successfully apply improv techniques?

If so, you’re not alone and these are reservations I too, once shared. However, after applying a few improv techniques to my design thinking workshops, I’ve become a strong believer in the role that improv can play in strengthening the design thinking process. Additionally, I believe that anyone can learn these techniques quickly.

Powerful Benefits that Improv Brings to the Design Thinking Process

The best improv comedians are quick-witted, good listeners (in a high-pressure environment), fearless, and inherently great at building off the ideas of others. These attributes can also make for fantastic design thinkers (see Fast Company – Improv Comedians Make the Best Design Thinkers). Improv techniques help design thinkers to:

  1. Empathize more deeply with their design target
  2. Increase camaraderie & collaboration between participants throughout the design thinking process, by improving moods, increasing energy, & strengthening listening skills
  3. Remove barriers to creative thinking including the pressure to provide the perfect answer & other self-imposed reservations

Improv Techniques are Refreshingly Easy to Learn & Apply to Design Thinking

Fortunately, one need not attend multiple improv class or be a trained comedian to immediately apply improv techniques to the design thinking process. Below are links describing a few of my favorite exercises that anyone can learn & apply immediately.

  1. Great Overview of Improv Games to Foster Creativity & Collaboration
  2. Stanford Improv Activities for Design Thinking (“yes and” is an incredibly powerful phrase; “yes but” can be incredibly deflating)
  3. Failure Bow (similar to the ‘You’re Awesome’ game described in link #1, but particularly good for pre/post-mortem brainstorms)

Improv can be Leveraged at Any Point in the Design Thinking Process

From ‘Empathize’, to ‘Ideate’, to ‘Prototype’, improv can help all stages of the design thinking process. Some of my favorite times and ways of utilizing improv techniques include:

  • Empathy Stage
    • Physically acting out how you envision your design target uses a product or a service, is a great way to begin relating to them
  • Ideate & Prototype Stages
    • I love using an exercise like ‘Soundball’ or ‘Remember Mexico’ to warm-up my participant’s listening skills & ability to build off the ideas of others. These exercises are also fantastic tools for increasing participant energy levels, especially after lunch or a break during full-day ideations.

In summary, improv has tremendous ability to improve the design thinking process and improv techniques are both easy to learn and to apply. An open-mind, a little practice, and a bias for fun will go a long way in learning and applying these techniques. Have fun and prepare yourself for richer participant engagement and stronger ideas when you incorporate improv exercises into your design thinking process!

Interested in Reading/Listening to Other Great Resources on DT & Improv?



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