Improv and Design Thinking –

I can sum up my philosophy on life in two words: “Yes, and…”

That’s right. I see and interact with the world via improv’s most basic tenet. “Yes, and..” is the foundation on which all the other principles of improv hang. It seems simple at first, but it’s actually pretty difficult to embody well. For me “Yes, and…” means finding something worth accepting in anything that comes your way and then building off that nugget of goodness.

At times this is simple, like when someone says, “Have some cake!” I say “Yes I would love some cake, and… I’ll take some ice cream, too!” Other times “Yes, and…” takes creativity, patience, and discipline like when someone tries to cut me off in traffic. My first reaction is to speed up to keep them from coming into my lane (“No, you cannot get in my land and… I’m going to make sure you know it”) or riding their bumper and glaring (“Yes, you can cut in front of me but… I’m going to make your drive miserable”). “No, and…” and “Yes, but…” may sound similar to “Yes, and…” but they are actually the opposite. What I try to do on my good days is slow down, let them over, maybe wave and smile. (“Yes, you can shove your way in front of me, and… I’ll help you out and offer you kindness.”)

I believe that everyone can utilize “Yes, and…” as their guiding North Star. So it should have been no surprise to me that improv immediately came to mind when I joined IBM Design.

The parallels between the principles of improv and the methods of IBM Design Thinking are staggering.

So in February I led a three-session workshop on Improv and Design Thinking in the IBM Design Studio’s Maker Space here in Durham, NC. In this blog I’m going to share a summary of some of the parallels I see between improv and Design Thinking and also reflect on my experience of doing improv with designers.

The Workshop

This was my description of the workshop:

Improv and Design Thinking go hand in hand. While there are many good practices, principles, and activities to guide design thinking, there is little that helps foster the alternative mindset that is required to best participate in design thinking. Improv as a craft can foster the thinking behind design thinking, give confidence to its practitioners, and create healthier team dynamics.

In this three-session workshop, participants will hone their design thinking skills through engaging in many different improv activities. This is not a course on how to be funny. You don’t need to be witty. It’s not an acting class. You don’t need to have theater experience. It’s not a performance. Everyone present is participating. There’s no audience.

All you need to join in is an open mind, a positive attitude and a willingness to participate.

Desired Outcomes:

Increase active listening and other communication skills

Learn how teams can better work together

Improve how to engage and satisfy clients

Hone skills as a design thinking practitioner

Practice storytelling skills

Gain better empathy for users

I wanted to shape the workshop primarily for design thinking and not for improv so I started by framing the class around IBM Design Thinking’s Loop: Observe, Reflect, Make. For those not familiar with “The Loop”, it’s a way of understanding users’ needs and continuously delivering outcomes. The Loop is a continuous movement through three phases. These stages are observe, reflect, and make. First, you need to observe their users in order to get to know their common behavior. Next you reflect on what you’ve observed to clarify insights and synthesize what was learned. Then you give concrete form to abstract ideas by making. This leads back to observing how the user interacts with what was made. In improv, a player will go through this loop a thousand times, and the best improvisers will do it instinctively. The “users” for an improv performance can be both the other players on stage and the audience.


At it’s core, improv is about observation. It’s about watching and listening to your partner, the audience, and your own words and actions. To observe and listen to your partners requires teamwork and trust.

The first session was a low-risk on-ramp into improv for those who were new and a great foundational review for those with improv experience. There was little to no “acting” involved and most activities were whole group games. I made it clear that the goal was not to be funny or witty, but to simply listen and trust your partners. In fact, trying to be funny often creates a blocker for yourself and takes away opportunities for your partner to participate.

This session was aimed at improving design thinking by helping teams listen more intently to one another, to clients, and to users and trust one another more. It was also the basis on which the other sessions would build.

What thrilled and surprised me was how quickly everyone jumped in, participated, and embodied the principles of improv immediately. Only one or two people from the group had ever done improv before and many confessed to having stage fright. Yet, when given the framework of “Yes, and…” and connecting improv to design thinking, everyone gained confidence and thrived on stage. We even had a dog join in!


While improv is fast paced, it requires constant reflection. This is the comma in “Yes, and…”, where you observe something and reflect on what can be added to that. Others simply ask, “If this is true, what else can be true?” “Yes, and…” can only be possible if players are able to recognize the gifts in what is being offered by their partner. Nothing kills a scene faster than doing the opposite of “Yes, and…” which is called negation.

In this second session, we built on the observation session by reflecting on how to mine out the gifts of our partners and build on them to create good scenes. While this session required a bit more “on stage” activity, there was still very little asked of the participants when it came to acting.

This session was aimed at improving design thinking by helping foster creativity through encouraging positive brainstorming during activities like big idea generation, looking for new and better ideas within what currently exists, and moving things forward creatively and energetically. It also helped with conflict resolution.

During the feedback and reflection time at the end of this session, there was a lot of conversation about the feasibility of always adhering to “Yes, and…” in real life work situations. One person mentioned a scenario where a certain person on his team refused to listen to anyone and demanded a green button in the UI (silly, I know.) Everyone else on the team knew the green button was the wrong way to go, so how do you “Yes, and…” his offer of a green button?

My response was that it probably wasn’t actually about the green button. Why did he want a green button? Why did he want his voice heard? Why was he unwilling to listen to the rest of the group? Maybe he didn’t feel validated or part of the group. If so, you can “Yes, and…” his contribution to the team without accepting the button. Maybe he was driving at the need for a more color blind accessible layout, so you can “Yes, and..” that and do something that’s more accessible. “Yes, and…” isn’t about accepting every single thing that’s offered or all of one offer, instead it is about finding what is valuable in what is being offered and focusing on that part.


Improv ultimately comes down to putting things out into the world. It’s about making something instantly. This is the magic of improv for the audience. This takes the courage to overcome the things that hold you back and the willingness to fail fast (a phrase used frequently at IBM).

In the final session, we put together all the lessons from session 1 and 2 and took the bold step into actually making a scene. By this time, players had enough trust in their partners and awareness of what makes a scene work to confidently create something new.

This session was aimed at improving design thinking by fostering the confidence it takes to overcome blockers that keep many from making and failing fast, which often stifles creativity.

By the end of this session, the walls were coming down. People were being more vulnerable with one another about their self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and fear of failure. Everyone seemed to walk away with a renewed confidence in what they do and willingness to take risks.

Designers get into their improve roles.


Since the workshop, our studio gathers once a month for a half hour of improv. One person from the studio told me before a session, “Last week realigned the chemicals in my body. I can’t wait to get started this week. It’s like crack, but good for you.” To which I said, “Yes, and…”

Author: Shay Hall

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