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Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games

Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games

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Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games

4/5 (1 rating)
182 pages
1 hour
Feb 16, 2017


This hybrid engineering manual and improv manual gives practical tips on how to boost design skills and design thinking with improv exercises. It pushes designers to trust their teams, take initiative, focus on the customer, and better transform abstract ideas into reality. Engineers, artists, makers, software developers, and entrepreneurs will find the most benefit from this guide, especially if they work in teams and strive to innovate. Teachers and trainers can also use this guide to supplement their lessons in design. First the guide details a number of selected engineering methods and skills that are both key to the design process and related to improv principles. These methods and skills all relate to the themes of teamwork, creativity and ideation, handling failure, empathy, and design representation. Then the guide details how to play over twenty-five fun and challenging games from the improv and art worlds that have direct applications to design skills. The connection between each game and a design skill is explicitly explained. Questions are also provided to give readers a chance to self-reflect on how a game might apply to them. The author draws on his own experience in engineering education and improv to compile this handy design reference.

Feb 16, 2017

About the author

Pius Wong is the engineer behind Pios Labs, a consultancy and design studio for engineering, education, and gaming. Originally a biomedical and mechanical engineer, he now runs projects that focus on advancing engineering education. These projects include producing The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.

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Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games - Pius Wong

Section 1: Introduction

Why Improv?

Improv opens minds, as art often does. In my case, it stretched my thinking. It made me work through self-doubt and perceived failures; it helped me reflect on the value of teams and trust; and most of all, it made so many pieces of my personal and professional life unequivocally more fun. Improv theater and comedy is another example of wonderful play that catalyzes learning, and I invite you to play, too.

This guide details many games from the improv and art worlds that are specifically meant to open the minds of designers, or anyone who creates products. This includes engineers, developers, artists, and entrepreneurs. In addition to being fun, these games are also exercises, in that practicing them can improve your performance on other related tasks. They particularly relate to many phases of the design process that require more creativity, imagination, persistence, and human interaction.

If you’re currently working in a profession that’s heavy on design and problem-solving, then you may recognize fairly quickly how these exercises apply to your traditional industry practices. You may also pick up a few design practices that are new to you, and the improv exercises might help you perform them better. If you’re a student inexperienced with design, rest assured that this guide is still meant for you. I’ve tried to detail all the engineering techniques here just as much as I detail the improv techniques, and so anyone who can read this guide can still perform all the activities.

That said, many activities in this guide have one big requirement. Nearly all the improv games or exercises here are meant to be played with other people. This might mean in pairs or bigger groups. You have to try the improv and engineering techniques here with your friends, classmates, and colleagues, or even your local improv theater. You’ll gain different insights when playing with various combinations of people and different group sizes.

I’ve chosen to include the exercises here based on my own experience as a professional engineer, engineering educator, software developer, and improv player, as well as based on conversations I’ve had with many other engineers who happen to be in the improv world. Although I’ve learned a lot about the connections between these games and traditional design skills, I’m sure there are more games, more skills, and more connections that I have not included here. I hope you discover new connections to your own professional practice, because it’s sure been enjoyable for me to find the connections to mine.

How to Use This Guide

The next section, Section 2, lists and describes different engineering themes, methods, and skills that are connected to various improv and art exercises. The Quick Guide in Section 5 also summarizes the same information. If you want to use this guide systematically to improve a specific engineering skill, first follow these general steps:

1. Find the engineering topic of interest, in Section 2 or Section 5. You can read the description of the engineering topic in Section 2 to learn or relearn its relevance to the design process. If the topic has a specific recommended procedure, then a summary of how to perform it is also given.

2. Find the list of improv/art exercises associated with that engineering topic. In Section 2, this is at the end of each entry on an engineering topic. It is also denoted in the columns of the table in the Quick Guide of Section 5.

3. Read about the associated improv/art exercises in Section 3. Section 3 lists various improv/art exercises in alphabetical order. Each entry in Section 3 details how to perform the exercise. Some questions are provided that are meant to guide you in finding connections between the exercise and your professional life. Finally each entry in Section 3 describes ways in which the exercise can boost a particular kind of engineering thinking.

Learning by reading is great, but practice is better. Go beyond theory by gathering up some teammates, figuring out which engineering topics and improv exercises you’d like to tackle, and engaging in some systematic play. In general you’ll get the most out of these exercises if you follow these four basic steps:

1. Practice the exercise(s) with a team.

2. Reflect upon the experience.

3. Practice the associated engineering skill(s).

4. Reflect upon your associated engineering skills.

Repeat as needed. This approach is based on my experiences becoming an improv performer and running similar workshops with educators in science, technology, engineering, and math. You don’t have to follow it exactly, but it might make the learning process more efficient.

Finally if you’d like more guidance on any of these topics, there are numerous resources. See Section 4 for recommendations for further reading and learning regarding engineering and improv topics. You can also find more information about Pios Labs, my consultancy in engineering and education, from which this project grew.

Section 2: Engineering Skills to Boost with Improv

The engineering themes, methods, and skills listed in this section have many connections to improv and art. For each engineering topic below, you can find a summary of how it helps the design process, as well as a list of improv and art exercises that can boost your understanding of that topic. The engineering methods and skills are categorized broadly into the following themes:

• Teamwork and Collaboration

• Creativity and Ideation

• Risk, Failure, and Resilience

• Empathy and Customer-Centric or User-Centric Design

• Design Representation

Each of these themes affects the success of the whole design process. Specific skills within each theme might be more relevant to specific stages of the design process or certain fields.

Then what do we mean when we talk about the design process? Not everyone describes this process in exactly the same terms, and whole books have been written on the subject. However, for the purposes of this guide, let’s borrow from the description at TeachEngineering.org, a project run by several different educational institutions. They represent the design process as roughly these repeated stages, generally starting with identifying the need:

This guide assumes you have some knowledge of this process already. If you do, you’ll realize that this representation is very simple, but at least it gives common terms to use for the rest of this guide. For a deeper review of the engineering design process, and for information about how different organizations describe it, you can read some of the resources below. If you’re more interested in jumping straight to the improv and art games, feel free to jump to my exercise recommendations in Section 3.

More Resources:

• "Design Sprint." Google Developers. Google. Accessed Feb 2017.

• "Engineering Design Process." TeachEngineering: Curriculum for K-12 Teachers. TeachEngineering.org. Accessed Dec 2016.

• Lanoue, Spencer. "IDEO’s 6 Human-Centered Design Process: How to Make Things People Want." User Testing Blog. 9 Jul 2015. Accessed Feb 2017.

• "NASA’s BEST – The Engineering Design Process." Beginning Engineering, Science and Technology. NASA. Accessed Feb 2017.

• Otto, Kevin, and Kristin Wood. Product Design: Techniques in Reverse Engineering and New Product Development. Pearson, 2000.

Teamwork and Collaboration

Modern design projects take place in teams, especially in engineering. Designing in teams brings many potential benefits, including the ability to create more complex products, access to a bigger immediate pool of ideas and knowledge, and the potential to divide and conquer and get things done faster. Then there are also drawbacks, including possible personality conflicts, indecision, and the need for effective communication or coordination strategies.

Success in this area of engineering includes effective communication with everyone, fostering trust, showing initiative, efficient decision-making, and taking and giving criticism productively. Review some of the related skills listed over the next pages, along with the improv and art exercises that can help you improve them.

Supporting Improv and Art Exercises:

• One Word at a Time

• Exquisite Corpses

• One Mark at a Time

• Category Yes!

• Category Die!

• Convergence

• Storyline

• New Choice

• Failure Bow

• Ball

• Start with a Motion

• Books!

• Word Association

• Ball + Word Association

• Ball + One Word at a Time

• Yes, and…

• Gift Exchange

• Soundball

• Soundpass

• Mirror Circle

• Pass the Clap

• One Voice

• Asking for a scene suggestion

• Describing characters’ goals

• Scene inspired by a character

• Character Smash

• Count to 20

A. Working in small teams


In this guide, this skill roughly refers to working in teams of about two to four people. The division of work is less structured than in larger groups. There aren’t strict sub-teams within a small team, and everyone in the team directly collaborates with everyone else. In small teams, team members may more often play multiple roles, or roles may change often, as everyone adapts to what is needed at a particular design phase.

Why It’s Important in Design:

This skill permeates the entire design process. Even when someone officially designs alone, nowadays they often have to work with contractors, consultants, and the intended customers. Knowing how to work with your immediate partners in design is essential.

Supporting Improv and Art Exercises:

• One Word at a Time

• Exquisite Corpses

• One Mark at a Time

• Category Yes!

• Category Die!

• Convergence

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