“The improviser has to be like a person walking backwards. They see where they have been, but they pay no attention to the future.”
– Keith Johnstone, ‘Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre’ (1979)
‘Walking Backwards’ is the result of a collaboration between Toronto-based Coolican & Company and Seattle brand Fin. Inspired by principles of improv theatre, the companies have generated a series of objects through a process that can most accurately be described as “improvised design.”
Product design is serious business. Driven by a brief, or what is identified as a gap in the market, the process is expected to yield an ideal solution to a stated problem. Novel outcomes can arise, but the journey is nonetheless rational, moving iteration-by-iteration towards a predetermined conclusion. Success is measured by how thoroughly a designer did the thing they set out to do.
In contrast, improvisors are said to “walk backwards” when they create. They are actors without a script, relying on instinct, imagination, the audience and each other to develop narratives in real-time. The process encourages performers to be brave, to see opportunities in the most challenging scenarios, and to embrace failure when it comes. Success happens when improvisers are fully present, attending only to the needs of the audience, their collaborators and, of course, the story.
Can we apply the principles of improv theatre to the design process? What opportunities for creativity and collaboration would arise? What happens when we, as designers, “walk backwards”?
This is a collaborative design experiment. It incorporates prompts from our companies’ social media audiences, and it will be documented on our accounts as we go (@coolicanandcompany; @findesignshop). Follow our process on social media, and come see.