Do Improv Comedians Make the Best Design Thinkers?

A teacher of design thinking at Dartmouth uses improv set-ups to boost his students’ creativity.

Peter Robie


Big design firms such as IDEO and Smart Design have made millions on their “design thinking” and “human-centered design process.” Which is good for them, but doesn’t necessarily teach you how to crib their mojo for your own endeavors. Peter Robie, an Engineering professor at Dartmouth, has an answer that would make Dunder Mifflin’s Michael Scott: Copy improv comedy classes.

Apparently, in his Design Thinking course, Robie has students act out how people use the objects around them. It’s a technique learned from experience. According to The Dartmouth Engineer:

“This class on improv is a tool for brainstorming,” he explains. “I’ve
always thought that the quickest and smartest folks at the
brainstorming phase of design have been those who do standup and
improv. They never say no. They never miss a beat. Improv requires
players to accept what they are given, build on the ideas of others,
and encourage wild ideas…”

…”Everyone thinks that they know how to brainstorm, but in fact,
brainstorming is usually plagued by problems like self-censoring,
competitiveness, and ridicule,” says Robbie. “Improv is a great way for
students to learn to defer judgment.”

Robie goes on to offer some pretty sharp nuggets about what human-centered design actually boils down to, and why it actually matters:


the period of scarcity after World War II in America, companies could
essentially sell anything they could make because people were happy to
have whatever they made,” he says. “But since the explosion of
competition globally, design has become the best way–or only way–that companies differentiate their products. It has developed into a
key aspect of innovation and a requirement for success….

“…because “good designers are astute observers of human behavior,” he
sends students out in the field as anthropologists to notice, question,
and analyze what they might otherwise ignore.

If you’re at all interested in design thinking, read the entire article. It’s excellent.

[Via Core 77]


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.