Image credit: Tobias Gremmler

The of

Where palettes and plies intersect

The comparison first came to mind as I watched the Design Manager describe ideating a new design system. “We really wanted to explore this idea…” he started, his two hands turning over, palms facing upwards like a flower in bloom. Like deja vu or some other mysterious brain spasm, I was instantly transported back to high school, to ballet class with a visiting teacher. “Your hand should be fluid,” he told us, “like a fish.” Then he raised his hand to demonstrate — it undulating like an elegant carp.

With instances like the one I just described, it’s pretty easy to draw similarities between design and dance. Both are professions with a firm footing (no pun intended) in the arts. Both focus on marrying function and aesthetics: conveying an idea, message or benefit beautifully and for the customer’s enjoyment.

And both rely on a layering process: first establishing a core idea before adding details and other finishing touches. A dancer blocking choreography is basically a designer sharing a prototype. A dress rehearsal is like a product beta. Opening night is your product going GA.

Communication patterns, at least from my experience, seem similar too. As a former dancer, I’m familiar with the “noises as instruction” that is common in the dance arts. “Bah-dump-barrump-open-and-a-one” when paired with truncated movements is what a dancer follows when learning new choreography.

Visually-driven, designers seem to prefer communicating via action as well: sketching out ideas on a whiteboard, often with the same vigor as if performing a dance all their own. And when communicating verbally, designers also lean on their own distinctive language — at times using seemingly otherwordly terms like “explore,” “element,” and “experience” that feel as ethereal as the tulle on a ballerina’s gown.

And, I mean, I think I get it. In both design and dance, the goal is to innovate, push the envelope and create something new and extraordinary. Description that relies on old patterns or artifacts could introduce unnecessary baggage and prove retrogressive. A new “language” — based on strokes of the arm or the pen — is necessary towards breaking through old standards.

A designer on my team recently pointed out that even new and innovative things are based on a foundation of knowledge that all designers stand by. Related to a topic we had previously been discussing, he honed in on a quotation from famed designer Massimo Vignelli: “Good design is the by-product of a proper contextual evaluation, not a whimsical creation out of context, no matter how brilliant its visual aspect may be.”

His point, as I understood it, is that even the creation of something new is based on respect for and adherence to time-honored principles. And this is maybe a final similarity between design and dance: that it’s a combination of instruction on the fundamentals, study of the masters, and expertise honed from practice and persistence that brings us to this point. And from this point and moving forward, it is a focus on creating outcomes both deliberate and delightful that bring about true magic for the audiences that we serve.

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