Clowning Around For Better Empathy and Design

Clowning & Miming for Better Empathy

Clowning might seem either silly or scary to some, but the art of non-verbal communication is just that: an art. And like art, it opens the door to myriad interpretations, but also to greater empathy and that only benefits design.

Tonight I attended my first of what I hope will be many monthly meetings of the Design With Dialogue community of practice being held at OCAD University in Toronto. The topic of the evening was What do clowns know that you don’t ? The hosts were an international clown troupe comprised of Patricia Kambitsch, Heidi Madsen, and Elsa Lam. The answer to the question posed by the evening is: a lot.

The night began with a series of exercises done first in pairs, then pairs of pairs, and then as teams of four. What struck me was that, prior to this evening and a few Twitter follows, I didn’t know a single person at this event. Yet, after the course of two and a half hours, I felt I had a room full of new “peeps”. I was thrilled to find an interesting, engaged and dynamic group of people who could perform for each other without the safety net provided by familiarity.

So what brought this about and what does it have to do with clowns? Actually, the clowns were not made up nor was there even mention of clowning beyond the introduction of the hosts. In the case of tonight’s activity, the clowning was due more to physical performance, and particularly the use of non-verbal communication. Over the course of two hours we went through four sets of activities:

1. In pairs, determined by how tall you were (which isn’t relevant, it just allows for a creative way of splitting the room up), introduce yourself using gestures — particularly exaggerated ones — and then mirror that response back to your partner with no words expressed between you.

2. As a pair, join with another pair and use the non-verbal communication rapport generated from the first exercise to work together to non-verbally communicate a particular emotion (including some tough ones like passed over and pity — try acting these out, you’ll see how hard that can be).

3. Working with both pairs together as a foursome, the new group of four is asked to act out a particular phrase. They are to do this while walking across the room where the rest of the participants are asked to guess the phrase. There is little communication between the four people in this new group.

4. The four individuals sit on four chairs and acts out a skit called “four clowns on a bench” where one person is whispered a scenario and the other three are asked to follow along, not knowing what the actually phrase is.

What happens after all of these is remarkable. I found myself acting in a group on something I didn’t know, yet perceived because of the empathy that I developed over the course of two short hours of working non-verbally. As a result, my group — team — and all the others put on performances that were funny, coherent, and creative with little to no verbal sharing of information.

This stoking of empathy and the insight it produced demonstrated enormous potential for design and teamwork. Building on work that Keith Sawyer has done looking at improv and creativity, this session demonstrated just how powerful non-verbal, emergent communication can be and how us designers — in whatever situation we inhabit — dismiss such opportunities for learning, creative expression and community building at our peril.

I wasn’t really a fan of clowns before tonight; now, I am.

Clown around.

** Photo by Peter Pearson under Creative Commons License from the Flickr pool

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