Beyond the Bounds - June 1, 2019
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Why Improvisation? Connecting Music to Design

By Ellis Anderson

In 2016, when I first applied to be part of the Masters of Graphic Design program at NC State University, I met with the Director of Graduate Programs, Denise Gonzales Crisp. We talked about program expectations and my personal goals in pursuing a graduate degree in graphic design. When the conversation turned to reviewing my work, I was nervous. My experience in design was relatively limited, having been out of undergraduate art school for more than 6 years. I had spent the majority of my time playing music in bands, working as a screen printer, and taking on occasional freelance illustration and graphic design jobs. During our conversation, to compensate for my limited design portfolio, I attempted to explain the connections between my illustrations and graphic design. Surprisingly, Denise offered a different perspective. “Your music is more akin to design than your illustration,” she said. I smiled and nodded in agreement. Of course, I had no idea what she was describing. At the time, the question “why is design like music?” was almost as nonsensical to me as “why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Some clarification came from my first graduate studio course at NC State in the Fall of 2017 with Professor Gonzales Crisp. Students were asked to redefine the culture of graphic design through visual and conceptual artifacts, “things” that would demonstrate a shift in our own understanding of graphic design and propose alternative visions for its future. Throughout the semester I felt like a fish out of water. I kept asking myself: how am I supposed to participate in a conversation without experience or knowledge of the domain? It was an exercise in extended suspension of disbelief over the course of the semester; not only did I feel ill-equipped to contribute, but also the class was largely impromptu, assignments being continuously added to and altered with little time to acclimate. At the end of the course, I felt as though I had taken part in a long-form zen koan, in which I was tested on my ability to “trust the process.” While I may not have understood what I was doing at the moment, in time I have come to better understand and appreciate the teaching method and the positive implications it had on students’ creative output, especially my own.

Professor Gonzales Crisp’s research concerns the implementation of improvisational methods into design pedagogy (Abdullah & Gonzales Crisp, 2018; Abdullah & Gonzales Crisp, 2019). The Fall 2017 studio adopted an improvisational structure as a method for coping with uncertainty, encouraging cross-pollination of ideas between students and generating unforeseeable outcomes. Framing the studio experience as an improvisational performance instead of chaos began to reveal a deeper relationship between music and design. Although I do not have formal training or play in a traditional jazz ensemble, “jamming” is an integral part of my musical repertoire. This process, like jazz or improvisational theater, operates on a shared understanding between participants. The “rules” are to accept experimentation and let a conceptual direction unfold intuitively, knowing that actively engaging in the process will yield an outcome or reveal a connection that otherwise would not have presented itself.

Why is improvisation pertinent to design practice? What is its value? Consider two qualities of an ideal designer. First, when faced with an ambiguous question, a “wicked” problem as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber describe (1973), the designer must be curious. The designer must seek out a variety of paths and is rarely satisfied with the status quo or a predictable solution. We see this through the designers’ tendency to develop multiple possible solutions to a single prompt. The iterative behavior of pushing past initial concepts is a paramount competency for the seasoned designer. Designers do not iterate because early ideas are by nature bad or fail to satisfy brief requirements. Iteration is a practice based on the belief that an even better, more creative, or surprising idea is just around the corner, on the other side of inevitability.

Second, in order to discover the relevancy of their designs, the designer must remain open. Here, openness does not refer to being agreeable or open-minded per se; rather, it means releasing one’s conceptual trajectory to the response from others. In the context of the Fall 2017 Studio, students’ project directions would take abrupt turns following group critiques as ideas would converge. At one point, students were forced to literally switch projects, taking on research questions that another student had generated based on their own interests. Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner (1983) refers to this kind of responsiveness as “situated cognition,” describing design’s reciprocal back-and-forth between intuition—or, “knowing-in-action”—and contemplation—or, “reflection-in-action”—when confronted with feedback from an outside source (Mccall, 2012). Schön is referring to the student-professor relationship, a dynamic that reflects a more traditional understanding of the academy and design education. In contrast, Professor Gonzales Crisp intentionally created a learning environment in the fall 2017 studio where students would be responsive and responsible to each other rather than to an “all-knowing” instructor.

In another way, think of attention and openness to others as a kind of deep listening, the trust of another, the process and the here and now, or, as Schön (1983) puts it, “seeing-as.”  Coincidentally, the term “deep listening,” coined by the late experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros, is tied to improvisational methodology and ambient music. Oliveros talks about respecting what comes back to you (TEDxIndianapolis, 2015), while Schön (1983) marks the shift between knowing and reflecting as the moment when the “situation talks back” ( p. 131). Openness means listening, reflecting, and respecting the encounter with something other than oneself or one’s own proclivities.

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned qualities of an ideal designer, curiosity and openness, are the same qualities of an ideal improviser. A musical improviser is only worth her weight if she explores the sonic territory. In jazz improvisation, social structures dictate that soloists are given priority based on experience and proven ability to take creative leaps (Bastien & Hostager, 1988; Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Those who do not venture out, or “play it safe,” run the risk of losing their platform, or in the case of jazz, the opportunity to solo. By the same token, experimentation must be coupled with an awareness of the group. Those musicians who diverge must be able “to blend their competence with that of the other members” (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001, p.747). In many jazz environments, the “centering” technique allows players to gradually expand musical variation once each member familiarizes themselves with the previously explored sonic terrain (Bastien & Hostager, 1988). “Centering” shares many similarities to designers’ use of mental models, intersubjectivity, knowledge integration, and design “framing” (Cross, 2010; Hong, Lee & Lee, 2016; Kleinsmann, Deken, Dong & Lauche, 2012; Mcdonnell, 2018; Yuill & Rogers, 2012). Both curiosity and openness are necessary for the musical improviser and designer alike. Both the designer and improviser are social creators, requiring feedback from a variety of sources. Both design and improvisation are exploratory in that an obvious solution is rarely satisfactory. However, the two share differences as well as similarities. Improvisation, while providing procedures for conceptual exploration, is ultimately concerned with the pursuit of a musical idea for its own sake, for the sake of the art. Design, on the other hand, is fundamentally concerned with improving a problem or situation, entailing creative exploration as a means to an end rather than a means to itself.

So why expand the role of improvisation in the design process? Design has plenty of its own ideation strategies, many of which have been tested and finely tuned to yield efficacious results. Some, like brainstorming, mashups or rapid prototyping, even resemble strategies from improvisation (Design Kit, n/d). Why attempt to alter a paradigm that works as is? The answer may concern the proportionate quality of ideas generated via different strategies.

Design ideation methods, especially those from human-centered design (HCD), seek to determine the appropriateness of an idea (Giacomin, 2014). However, few of these methods prioritize novelty over efficacy. Relying too heavily on existing user experience methods may lead designers to produce designs that “work” but are ultimately lacking in inspiration or, dare I say, magic. In his book Design Thinking (2011), Nigel Cross references renowned product designer Philippe Starck’s “Juicy Salif” lemon squeezer, created for Alessi. Starck’s solution is visually absurd but captivating, looking somewhat like a miniscule version of the alien crafts from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. While a more pragmatic solution may have gotten the job done, it is Starck’s strange take that provides both function, form, and a unique kind of enchantment (as David Rose might refer to it). Designers are positioned to blend novelty and efficacy, less they become aesthetically concerned versions of their developer and engineer counterparts. They pursue the problem and the solution concurrently (Cross, 2010; Cross, 2011). To a certain degree, designers must creatively “guess” to receive feedback, reflect, and adjust accordingly. The end goal is to create something both surprising and appropriate. Established design ideation methods cover the latter, improvisation engages the former (Healey, Leach & Bryan-Kinns, 2005).

Designers can incorporate improvisation to alter some of the common missteps associated with designerly behavior and thinking. Fixation, or the “blind adherence to a set of ideas or concepts limiting the output of conceptual design” (Jansson & Smith, 1991, p. 3), is something that all designers struggle with, especially novices (Cross, 2010). While Cross explains that fixation can be both negative and positive—such as being fixated on pursuing “relevant first principles”—the negative manifestation can become detrimental to developing surprising design outcomes. Negative design fixation can lead a designer to regurgitating tired clichés and overused tropes, mimicking what has worked before in place of surveilling the territory prior to committing to a conceptual or formal path. Conversely, improvisational thinking has been shown to increase creativity by encouraging positive evaluation of “deviant ideas” (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Abecasis & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014), which may be key to overcoming negative design fixation. To be clear, relying on the status quo serves a purpose; for designers without large R&D budgets or time to experiment, resorting to established schemas serves the bottom line (think the use of rounded corners in contemporary user interface, or bold “Hi, my name is…” landing pages on young tech professionals’ personal websites). However, for those who are seeking design potentialities to emerging situations or contexts, what has worked before may not work for what has yet to come.

The trickiness with an improvisational approach to ideation is determining where or when the designer should implement its methods. Staying curious and flexible is relatively feasible at the beginning stages of the design process. However, once designers have significantly developed an idea, fixation becomes that much more difficult to break (Tseng, Moss, Cagan & Kotovsky, 2008; Crilly, 2015). In both a cognitive and pragmatic sense, as a project develops, resources and hard work cement a concept in place (Crilly, 2015). Additionally, the kind of social network needed to model an improvisational performance effectively poses complications. Designers will often work in interdisciplinary teams or groups of different stakeholders where ideas can be traded back and forth. Yet many designers have no choice but to work independently to generate initial concepts. Some researchers have proposed developing “design heuristics,” rules of thumb or creative provocations to stimulate new modes of ideation after creative “exhaustion” has set in (Gray, Mckilligan, Daly, Seifert & Gonzales, 2017). Design heuristics may function well in a highly controlled situation where designers are aware of their own creative deficiencies when they arise. However, a system that could monitor a designer’s progression and intervene at the appropriate time would be better equipped to handle a variety of contexts, as it would allow the designer to work intuitively until her intuition expires.

Since my conversation with Professor Gonzales Crisp in 2016, I have been preoccupied with—fixated on, you might say—solving the riddle: why is music like design? Despite my fascination, the reality may be that the two are not related. However, there are connections to be made, notably the connection between musical improvisation and design process. Improvisation relates to design through the mutual value of curiosity and openness. While only a handful of researchers have studied this (Kleinmintz et al., 2014; Sowden, Clements, Redlich & Lewis, 2015), improvisational competence can enhance divergent thinking and may be able to compensate for common difficulties in the design process such as negative fixation, attachment to early concepts, and creative stagnation. Identifying effective opportunities to introduce these methods is essential to expanding the cross-application of improvisation in design.

Ellis Anderson (MGD ‘19) is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master of Graphic Design program.


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