Projects are a performance – design is your rehearsal

When you do a project, you’re putting on a performance. And for a good performance, you need to rehearse to figure out what to do and how to do it. Rehearsals in that sense are a design process. Here’s how Oscar-winning actor and theatre director Sir Mark Rylance helped me understand more about the arts of both performance and project design.

Whether you think about it or not, every project you do involves designing something. In the business world, it could be a product, an image, a marketing campaign, a customer journey, a computer program, a process or a system. Building a company involves designing how many of these things fit together. A large part of government is the design of policies and laws that enable a country to operate effectively. Even making dinner plans with friends is designing your evening.

So everyone in one way or another does design. But we often make mistakes that can be fatal to success, particularly so with complex projects. We sometimes assume that we can create a perfect design at the outset that can be followed rigidly until the project is complete. We sometimes assume that we can just figure it all out on our own.

In fact, the start of the project is when we have the least information about what we’re trying to do. We will inevitably get the design wrong. Agile thinking teaches us instead to make the best plan we can and respond to change as we progress. And good design is never done alone by some purported genius; no single person can know everything or have all the ideas. So agile thinking also guides us to work closely with one another. And the first principle of design thinking agrees: design is social by nature.

An unlikely analogy for design occurred to me today as I was watching Sir Mark Rylance explain his directing techniques during rehearsals. And to share this, I invite you for a moment to consider a theatre performance as a project and the director as its chief designer.

If you are interested (or want to listen to his fantastic voice), you can watch the full video (6 mins) where he describes using the rehearsal exercise to explore how a scene could be performed:

I find playing, getting up and playing, and finding what comes spontaneously when I’m with the other actors and really speaking with them, that’s a more fruitful way for me to find out what to do.

Sir Mark Rylance, 2013 interview at The Old Vic theatre

Now I should be clear that I have no theatrical experience. I’ve not acted since primary school and I have never directed a play. So I apologise if any of the following is a misinterpretation! But for me, Rylance’s directing thoughts and techniques are readily applicable to improving design on any project. Here are few of the parallels I see:

  • He favours diving straight in rather than having extensive meta-discussions. Too often at the start of a project people will talk at length about how to go about solving the problem but not actually address it. We should avoid that obstacle and start the actual design as soon as possible.
  • He encourages the actors themselves to explore. He sees directing as a collaborative design process with those who are closest to the characters.
  • He makes things tangible – the fourth principle of design thinking – by actually getting on the stage and trying out different approaches. He sometimes starts with no idea at all, and has developed techniques for exploring what the ideas could be.
  • He creates a safe environment that allows actors explore ideas without fear of making mistakes. Too often when designing, there is a tension of misunderstanding or a pressure to come up with the right answer. These things suppress creativity and free thought. A relaxed, safe and inquisitive atmosphere is key to good design.
  • He hopes to carry questions into the performance rather than concrete answers. Shakespeare is rich and complex – a simple or literal interpretation cuts out that depth and colour. In this sense he follows the second principle of design thinking – to preserve ambiguity. This then allows the audience to become part of the design process by offering their own interpretations, and indeed he finds inspiration in that too.

I’m sure there are many others to find too! But for me personally, the most striking parallel was his observation that a good solution can emerge from an almost inexplicable conversation between your conscious and unconscious. That “a-ha moment” of design thinking for me often comes out of blue like that. It’s a great moment, but elusive, and only likely to happen in an environment of the kind Rylance creates.

So for better design, and more successful projects, remember that just like rehearsing for a play, design is a creative and social process. Don’t leap to conclusions. Build an understanding. Keep an open mind. The end result might surprise you.

Your job as the designer, just like the director, is to ensure everyone intelligently and empathetically approaches the problem. As Kent Beck said in 2015, “the craft of programming begins with empathy”. Where better place to find that than in the theatre?

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