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The More You Design: Acting on Impulse

Often it seems to me the more you design the further away you get from the final product. For me this is true of theatre design, graphic design, costume design, installation design… even when it comes to making home made birthday and christmas cards! Simply put often the more effort i put into the “procedure” of designing something the harder it seems to be to achieve my goals. I can’t help wondering if the problem has it’s roots in art and design education at both college and university… the scenario may be familiar to you: You’re presented with a brief, perhaps a play or some piece of exhibition design and immediately you have an idea, a pure vision in your mind of what it *should* be. You quickly sketch or create some mood boards or maquettes… and there it is without a doubt in your mind the essense of the design. But you’re tutors disagreed, you didn’t follow the “procedures” you haven’t presented enough options to your client… or as one tutor often said to me “Martin, I really don’t think you have explored the possibilities yet”

What I often found happened next is that by exploring my work, and following procedure I diluted the design. Because I had to look for options I manufactured them instead of created them and more often than not the final work was a disappointing shadow of a much more energetic and honest genesis.

A good design practice is important. Relations with the director and production team are vital. But in those early stages I find design procedure to be something I should fall back on when that spark doesn’t ignite. And it’s a sign that I need a break when the more I work on something the more distant it’s realisation seems to become. Knowing how to break away is however hard… how can you resolve a design by stopping?

For me this is where the real creativity comes in, here are some things to try:

Dismiss everything you have come up with so far, take a walk, go for a swim/jog. And then come back to the project and:

  • Use found objects for inspiration, but don’t be too picky, don’t look for items that fit, rather re-imagine ones that seemingly don’t.
  • Pick up the script and sketch an image for each page in the body of the text or margins. Any image – it doesn’t matter if the imagery is naturalistic, surreal, abstract, suggestive – the important thing is to explore the script in a non-verbal way.
  • Listen to music and find a piece that describes the script to you, then look for music that describes the key characters or scenes of the script.
  • If you’re struggling with costume try “dressing up” whilst in character, explore the cut and construction of clothes and the effect it has on your body and movement.
  • If you’re struggling for the bigger picture when it comes to costume, try to simplify things. Avoid getting hung up on detail rather think about the basic shapes, themes or periods.
  • Brainstorming… there is something slightly “uncool” about brainstorming, I used to think of it as a bit remedial… the kind of thing you had to do because you were completely inept at designing because it seemed so obvious… but often our artistic egos can get in the way of our common sense and cloud the obvious.

There are many more things to try but as I’m typing this in the spirit of “acting on impulse” and immediately pressing the “publish” button as soon as I finish I must prevent myself from searching for them… that’s up to you.

Finally once you have the design I like to disassemble it, you can do this very early on or once you have that first model in place. Keep on taking things away until you have the very bare essentials and explore whether it still communicates and creates an interesting space.


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