From 2008 to 2010 I lived on the top story of a two-story house in Berkeley, California. Rose, my landlady, was a retired University of California at Berkeley professor and lived downstairs. She taught Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women for 20+ years. She also got up every morning, climbed into her 1998 Mazda Protege in her shorts with gym bag in hand, and drove to the local YMCA to work out. Her hair looked especially lavender in the morning light and I had a perfect view of the balding patch on top of her head from my second-story window.
Rose, God bless her, was cheap. She was living off her pension with two smelly cats. I got the feeling that managing an apartment put Rose in above her head. She acted like she knew what it meant for the electricity to be “grounded” and for the internet to be “wireless” but trust me—she didn’t. This might explain why she was so in awe of Vince, her beloved handman. “I just love Vince,” Rose would say. “He knows how to fix everything.” To Vince’s credit, he was friendly, kind of charming and exuded confidence. When Vince talked I wanted to believe that he could fix all of my apartment’s maladies, but over time I learned that his handy work left something to be desired. Rose overlooked this, I believe, because of his hourly rate and because she trusted him. I, on the other hand, had different standards.
On a Tuesday evening I arrived home from work and found a new doorbell mounted to my front door. Rose was pulling weeds from her garden and saw me walk up. “Vince came by!” she said, slowly standing up. “He replaced your doorbell.“
“Great!” I responded. I looked at the doorbell and noticed on the side an arrow pointing down and some writing next to it. “This end up,” it said. Vince, my dyslexic handyman, had struck again.
It’s frustrating, at first, when products don’t work as they should. They are designed to function in a particular way, fulfilling a particular need. A cookie cutter cuts dough into shapes; a Christmas tree stand holds a tree securely in place; a plastic straw connects liquid with one’s lips. All of these are intended uses. The fun lies in thinking beyond what it’s supposed to do and instead, what it can do. What else can a cookie cutter do? Maybe you come up with one hundred new uses for a cookie cutter and ninety-nine of them are junk but one of them is promising. That’s enough to grab on to and go with. A cookie cutter as a print making tool. A cookie cutter as decoration on a wall. One thousand cookie cutters of different shapes and sizes in a big pile. What would that look like? What would it resemble? Tara Donovan’s piece, Haze, is a wonderful example of finding a new use for an ordinary product: the clear plastic drinking straw. Stacking one on top of another, Donovan transforms a wall into an undulating vertical landscape. It is gorgeous and awe-inspiring in its use of thousands of straws. Only straws.
When pushed, my new imperfect doorbell sent the sound of an electronic sick cow sailing throughout my apartment. It lasted for a good ten seconds, starting off slowly and gaining steam. “meeeeeoooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwaaaaaaooooooo.” I couldn’t help but laugh every time I heard the weird moo. I was frustrated that, like my light switches, Vince had installed the doorbell upside down. And like his “Right is hot. Left is cold.” faucet fix, he got it wrong. Fortunately, the upside down doorbell wasn’t too disorienting. It didn’t work as intended but it made me laugh. And I enjoyed attributing the moo to whoever was at my door. “Moo. Would you like to hear what God can do for you today?”
As designers, how do we get there? Is there a moment of divine intervention? Are certain people geniuses and the rest of us are not? Doubtful. I have found that what usually looks effortless is the result of work. One place where the experimental nature of the creative process thrives is in Improvisational Theater. Its spontaneous nature is based on trial and error. On stage one performer throws out a line and another responds. The scene is literally made up on the spot. It sounds almost impossible and yet it works so well. One could argue that the stakes are high because it is done before an audience but in fact, the stakes are low because failure is built in to the process. The scene moves very quickly and is constantly changing.
Be obvious. Shoot for average. Surprisingly, this is a tenet of Improvisational Theater. It sounds antithetical to being creative but by simply responding to something without thinking removes the filter and relieves the pressure of being a genius. As Dan Klein, Director of the Stanford Improvisors at Stanford University said during an Improv workshop, “If you try to be brilliant it will kill you.” You’d be surprised at how often the simplest reactions in an Improv show get the biggest laughs.
Collaborate. Support your partner. An Improv performer joins her fellow performers on stage when there is a lull and they need help, not when she has something clever to say. Another tenet of Improv theater is that it’s not about you. In fact, it’s about making your partner look good. The generous nature of Improv lends itself well to collaboration in design. Perhaps because, as designers, we are judged by our creativity, we tend to keep our cards close to our chests. But the pressure to come up with something unique in isolation is just too much. By collaborating and letting go of whose idea was whose, we open ourselves up to experience the excitement that takes place by engaging in creation with another person. Collaboration with others becomes a safe place to take risks.
Say yes. Yes, and... In Improv performers are constantly giving offers back and forth. This will only work if one performer accepts the other’s offer. A block is when one performer shoots down another’s offer. Do this enough times and the scene goes nowhere. By accepting what another performer offers you, the story evolves. As designers, we can “say yes” to any idea, ignoring the voice that tells you it’s stupid and give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, toss it out. What if it does spark something? Keith Johnstone, Improv grand daddy and author of Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre wrote, “People who say yes are rewarded by the adventures they go on. People who say no are rewarded by the safety they retain.”
Vince’s mistake gave me an idea. What if doorbells made animal sounds when pressed? Instead of the standard “ding dong,” it would oink. Oink. “I have a package for you, ma’am.” Meow. “Is this cat yours?” What happens when we ignore a product’s intended use? What could we discover by turning a doorbell on its head? “meeeeeoooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwaaaaaaooooooo.” I walked down the stairs and opened the door. “Vince is here to fix your showerhead,” said Rose. Oh boy.