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The Problem with Solving Problems

One of the peculiar characteristics of theatrical design collaboration is the peer-to-peer nature of it. While most of the time, the director is the primary driver of the production's vision and has approval and veto of bigger design decisions, the rest of the design team aren't the same as employees or direct reports simply taking instruction. Designers have experience, knowledge and perspective that the director doesn't have; they are often leading their own teams of assistants and technicians who are making small decisions all the time about how the vision should be executed. Respecting this status is key to maintaining a successful collaborative relationship.

This is NOT a director/designer relationship. Photo from "Bells Are Ringing", CCPA, 2009. Director Luis Perez, Set Design Michael Lasswell, Lighting Design Aimee Hanyzsewski, Costume Design by me.

A key moment for this dynamic between collaborators is when a challenge comes up that needs a solution. It is tempting for a director (or anyone on the team!) to come into a conversation like this by offering an instruction or request: "Let's add x to the set!" or "Can we change this character's costume to y?" Given that these seem like clear questions or ideas, and they're often coming from that person with veto or approval power, the asker might be surprised when a designer doesn't immediately respond with "Sure!"

Why is that? Because the director has presented a solution instead of presenting the problem.

That experience, knowledge, and perspective that designers have? It is bypassed when you present us with a solution. If we can back up a few steps, and understand the problem that a director is trying to solve, designers can bring all that wisdom to bear in coming up with multiple possible solutions that can be considered. One of them might be far better than the one the director came up with in the first place. And here's the real pro tip - even if the team lands on the director's original solution, everyone will be more behind it because they had a share in coming up with it, rather than being told what should happen.

So there's today's lesson from design collaboration to every other kind of team:

Present the problem, not the solution.

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