Let’s Build a Cathedral Together: Improv, Collaboration, and the Design Process

Presented by: Roberto Ventura

Don’t bring a cathedral to a scene. Bring a brick; let’s build together. Del Close motivation At first glance, improvisational comedy and design appear quite different; however, the improv process provides a number of insights useful in design. Improvisers create in real-time by generating specific, unique responses in reaction to partners and situations. Most importantly, because of this reactive give and take, improvisers must be experts at collaboration. The importance of collaboration is significant. In the classroom, collaborative work generally generates greater amounts of information, stimulates creativity, heightens retention, inspires more satisfaction, and provides for greater self-reflection among students (Burke, 2011). These benefits are not limited to the classroom, as good collaborators are highly sought after by employers (Blowers, 2000) who list strong collaborative skills among the top ten desirable traits in potential hires (Graduate Outlook Survey, 2010). problem Given the collaborative nature of interior design, educators should look to develop students who can collaborate well. Although collaboration is important, few people are actually taught how to collaborate. Since collaborative skills are not intuitive, students need directed instruction in order to learn good practices. Because improvisation relies so heavily on collaboration, designers who learn the basics of the improv process might be able to develop better collaborative skills. method In a senior level interior design studio, students explored how improv principles inform the design process as they developed an hypothetical performance space for a local improvisational comedy troupe. First, students studied principles of improvisation - play; acceptance of failure; saying “yes;” yes, and; creating rules (Morris, 2012) - before being led through a workshop by two founders of a local improv company. Studio classes began with exercises reinforcing important improv principles, which then formed the foundation for quick charrettes focused on generating conceptual partis. These charrettes yielded two-dimensional collages, which underwent a series of abstractions before students transformed them into three-dimensional forms and spaces. Once students began schematic and design development, their traditional methods - bubble diagrams, sketching, modeling, and space planning - were disrupted by additional improv experiments. Exercises emphasized the fusion of conceptual three-dimensional work with the pragmatics of organizing interior space. results The studio aimed to expose the students to improvisational principles and to examine how they could inform and aid designers in their process. Initiating each studio with improv exercises enabled students to practice, retain and explain principles with good clarity. The collage charrettes provided the students with a strict framework within which they could develop conceptual work based on improv principles at a brisk pace that had relevance to the studio project. These concepts also informed the design process through construction documents and specifications. reflections Students demonstrated great dexterity and understanding of improv principles, and integrated them well into their design work. In subsequent iterations of this model, an explicit collaborative component should be explicitly integrated. Students worked individually and were not explicitly asked to practice the improv principles in an actual collaboration. More concentration in this area could bring the focus of the studio exploration full-circle. Tangentially, students appeared to enjoy the improv studies, and learned more about each other. The exercises also introduced the students and their personalities to the instructor. Students demonstrated little to no resistance to these introductory improv exercises, which could be attributed to the foundations established in the initial workshop put on by the two improvisors.


  • Burke, A. (2011). Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95.
  • Blowers, D.F. (2000). Canada: The Story of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition. In N. Evan's (Ed) Experiential Learning Around the World: Employability and the Global Economy (pp 83- 102). London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publications.
  • Collaborative Learning: Group Work. Retrieved from http://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/engaging-students/collaborative-learning.html
  • Graduate Outlook Survey (2010). University of Canterbury. Retrieved from http://content.yudu.com/A1qpzf/GoAustralia2011/resources/index.htm?referrerUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.graduateopportunities.com%2F
  • Morris, D. The Way of Improvisation. (2012) Retrieved from ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUO-pWJ0riQ
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