The Rise of Genius Design

Some time ago @rianvdm wrote an article on Miles Davis and the nature of true genius. Back then I didnt find the topic that interesting…

But 2 months ago I read Frank Chimero’s book, The Shape of Design. *And there it was again; the story of Miles Davis and how he and a few other musicians reinvented jazz in one day. But what placed Rian’s article in a completely new light was the poetry analogy Frank used in the beginning of the chapter.

Renga is a form of collaborative poetry where I would write the first 3 lines of a poem, pass it on to you to write the next 2 lines, after which you pass it on to me again. This back-and-forth collaborative approach would then give rise to something completely different than what it would have been without the collaborators.

This exact same thing happens in improvisational theatre as well, except a new role player is introduced into the process: momentum.

Frank explains it like this:


”…if you and I are improvising a scene on stage, and you say something I wasn’t expecting, I cant pull you aside and ask you to change your line. The continuity would be broken, so I must accept what you offer and then build on top of it.”

Now what’s interesting is that this same thing happened when Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue. He and his team build on top of each other’s sounds (without criticizing) to create a type of Jazz that didn’t exist before.

And that’s exactly how genius design is born as well. Together. Through improvisation. One idea is build on top of another to give rise to fresh and unexpected solutions. But what needs to be in **place in order for this to happen is what Frank calls the, “Yes and…” maxim.

“Yes” dictates that each contribution is valid and accepted. It prevents us from editing too early and thereby loosing momentum. The “and” part of the maxim, dictates that improvisation is an additive process that builds itself up with each decision made.

If we were put together to design a form for a website, I would, for example, start off and draw the first iteration with no field labels and only placeholders. You would now ask “Yes and what else can it look like?” You would now have the opportunity to change something. Perhaps keep the placeholders inside the fields and add a label to the top of it. In return I would now ask, “Yes and…” and remove the labels outside the field but add a layer of interaction design to give rise to something like this:

Infield Form Animation

I’ve recently tried this approach alongside one of our designers and it’s been one of the most fruitful design sessions yet. It enabled us to keep momentum and build on top of each other’s ideas to give rise to something I would not have been able to come up with on my own.

And this is exactly what we want and need in design.

The opening paragraph of Frank wraps it well:


”When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs… These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others…”

What can you add to the pool?

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*I was a bit stuck after my first sentence so I decided to just write what came to mind, even though I was hesitant. What felt like the wrong sentence to continue the article, kept the momentum and lead characters into words and words into sentences to form this post…

** To keep this post a bit more simple, I will refrain from going into how a framework and criticism affects this process.