Designing for improvisation

We all had to play two instruments. Piano, “and.” Regardless, the music was classical. All structure, baroque. As I got older, I still picked up instruments, but always played within classical lines. Improv, and in particular, jazz, have always been a fascination to me because they’re a downright mystery. This is what brought me to the making of Kind of Blue.

In the spring of 1959, seven musicians got together, some for the first time. When they arrived that day, each received a slip of paper with rough markings on it. Miles Davis, the organizer, had just handed them a little piece of history. You see, with this gesture, Miles Davis introduced something called modal jazz — a way of approaching improvisation unlike what had been seen before. In contrast to the complex chord progressions of the preceding years, modal jazz was simple. It was a mode, a scale, a framework.

Frameworks for improvisation

Instead of the control coming from the composer (read: the designer), modal jazz promotes a sense of discovery. It doesn’t reveal everything; it holds back in order to let go. This loose framework, then, gives way to co-creation.

And with recent talks, posts by people I look to for inspiration and read often talking about similar ideas, suddenly I can’t help but see improvisation everywhere! Perhaps you will too.

In realtime

See also:
Some more background included in Web Anatomy: Interaction Design Frameworks That Work. Excerpt available here by permission.

Like never before, people are improvising. Whether it’s for the realtime web or the realtime world, people are coming together in shared experiences, and rounding them out with personal stories, etiquettes, and values. They’re finding uninscribed rules in frames of reference — as didactic as form fields, as motley as urban landscapes. The designer’s role, then, shifts. Designers introduce the frames that audiences interpret. The audience is no longer just a spectator; the designer no longer the only creator.

Anil Dash on the realtime web:

In the realtime web, we’ve focused a great deal on the latest noise. But … what may matter most about realtime capabilities is the user experience that’s enabled. And the best use for realtime communications on the web is not to simply bring in the most recent information on a topic, but rather to make clear that others are experiencing or interacting with the same content at the same time.

See also:
Oral poets, back to the studies of Lord and Parry discovered epic poems were created and composed in the same moment.

No matter what the shared experience — be it part of a TED audience, a jazz improv group, a Twitter exchange, any shared audience — there is a common construct: the subject matter is such because of the improvisation. The framework (or as Frank wonderfully names it “tables”) merely suggests a possible dialog. And it’s the way the designer designs that suggestion that becomes paramount. How detectable is that suggested framework? And how do we design so that we’re setting out opportunities for audiences to take advantage of (or not)?

The improv overlap

Design is shifting from the creator to the consumer, yet it’s the place in the middle, the place where they play off one another, where new meaning is created. Frank Chimero recently talked about coming to jazz as one model for improvisation:

Learning about the history of the music and listening to musicians talk about jazz music, I heard things that made design make a bit more sense. Jazz is about improvising. It’s about having the musicians and audience meet the music halfway.

Exactly. (And do not miss the smart synthesis on pseudo-structures for more on this idea.) I would even say it’s more than a meeting point; it’s an overlap. The overlap is where new ideas — from both consumer and creator — come together, collide, discover new meanings. Miles Davis wanted to capture the spirit of discovery in his music. So at the intersection, how do we provide just enough constraint to allow for free-form discovery? How do we design for improvisation?

Constraints for creativity

When people talk about improvisation, they use phrases like “flying by the seat of my pants” and “winging it” — nomenclature that suggests being untethered. But in fact, improv is just the opposite. Its constraints set audiences free. They set rough guidelines for what’s to come. (See the emergent grammar of hashtags, the format of Humble Pied, or even something more scripted.)

Whether we consider our framework a browser, a city, or something unknown, we create the notes that allow audiences to improvise the greater whole. Just as Miles Davis created a new form of jazz that allowed a new generation of musicians to play beyond themselves, so do we have the opportunity to create frameworks for audiences to create in realtime.

Design in terms of expectations

See also:
Visualization of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, which characterized the complex chord progressions that preceded modal jazz.

Back to music. “Music is the pleasurable overflow of information,” according to Jonah Lehrer. When we listen, our brain makes order from the caucaphony of notes to make sense of it. In other words, when we listen, we don’t hear notes. We hear sound in motion. (Consider that! Sound in motion!) Of course, our brains know there are individual notes. But we hear motion because our brain wants to find patterns and hears, “in terms of expectations.” Our brain orders sound to keep up.

More from Lehrer on this:

Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

If this is the case, we already think in terms of what will come next. As people, as designers, we think in terms of expectations. We can turn scraps of sound into a symphony. Just like Miles Davis and his sextet turned scraps of paper into one of the best-selling albums of all time. Just like we, as designers, turn scraps of paper into transformative designs. This is our ability. To frame experiences; to extract information; to make haphazard notes and make sense of them; to imagine the future while the present is in motion.

As designers, we write the notes and our audiences improvise the music — whether it be interfaces, gestures, symphonies, or something much greater.