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Finding Serendipity in Early Prototyping
: An Improvisational Approach to Design Process
  • Lacerda Lucas : School of Industrial Design, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
  • WonJoon Chung : School of Industrial Design, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

This paper discusses the use of early prototypes in the quest for serendipitous ideas and unexpected insights in design teams. Serendipity is a common goal in improvisational performances such as music and theatre, which deal with extemporaneous and uncertain situations. Improvisation is then introduced to a method of collaborative early prototyping (CEP) as a means to coordinate serendipity in design process. This paper sets to scrutinize a design team performing new ideas in studio environment supplied with documents, laptops, tools and materials to build 3D models. It is found that the rules of improvisation practices have an intricate correlation with the modes of collaborative prototyping. Arguably, serendipity requires ordered action through storytelling, augmented prototyping performance and the use of touchpoints that likely validate and authenticate individual performance. These resultants are discussed and related for future research.

Serendipity, Improvisation, Collaboration, Design Teams, Early Prototyping.
pISSN: 1226-8046
eISSN: 2288-2987
Publisher: Korean Society of Design Science
Received: 04 Feb, 2013
Revised: 13 Feb, 2013
Accepted: 24 Feb, 2013
Printed: Feb, 2013
Volume: 26 Issue: 1
Page: 99 ~ 117
DOI: https://doi.org/10.15187/adr.2013.
Corresponding Author: WonJoon Chung (chung1627@gmail.com)
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Citation: Lacerda, L., & Chung, W.J. (2013). Finding Serendipity in Early Prototyping: An Improvisational Approach to Design Process. Archives of Design Research, 26(1), 2013.2


This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non- Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/), which permits unrestricted educational and non-commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited.

1. Introduction

For many years, serendipity, known as “positive discoveries by chance,” has been subject of interest in numerous scientific communities and business organizations. Science and businesses have been exploring the subject as a way to find innovative ideas or “positive discoveries by chance” through coordinate action. This paper takes on the same vision to understand serendipity in design process, in which teams struggle to discover new and unexpected ideas. Music and theatre are some of the few practices that master the coordination of serendipitous idea creation through the process of improvisation. Improvisational practices denote a very sophisticated process of discovery through simultaneous performance and composition. Conceivably, early prototyping allows for serendipitous manifestations in design teams (Chung, 2009). However, how to achieve serendipity in idea generation remains unclear. Improvisation, on the other hand, is known for successfully attaining positive discoveries in performance. Jazz musicians for instance respect a particular set of rules that enables serendipitous moments in their musical conversation (Barrett, 2002). Hence, this paper aims at investigating the practice of early prototyping with the introduction of an improvisatory approach in order to understand how designers can find serendipity when working with prototypes. We believe that there is a strong relationship between an improvisational structure and a collaborative early prototyping method that might coordinate serendipitous idea creation.

In order to analyze the coordination of serendipity in design process, data collection and analysis is made through video recording and observation. The objective is to understand how early prototyping relates to improvisation and how designers can use this relationship to find serendipity.

2. Background

Serendipity is a term coined in 1754 by English writer and politician Horace Wadpole, who derived the word from a fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip” (Danzico, 2010b). Falling somewhere between accidental and sagacity, serendipity is synonymous to “chance encounters” with positive outcomes (Danzico, 2010b:16). In Serendip, the three princes were always making unpredictable discoveries of things they were not in quest of. “Serendipity is often cited as a key factor in the success of the new” (Danzico, 2010b:16). Chance encounters are often the source of innovative solutions and designers have potential for these encounters everyday. Can designers plan for serendipity? May serendipity be coordinated in design process? In the words of Adam Greenfield, curator at Future Everything festival 2010, “serendipity does not simply mean surprise” (Greenfield, 2010). Discovery takes place in the course of a search for something unrelated. “The genuine occurrence of serendipity necessarily implies a very powerful order of richness and texture,” says Greenfield. In this scope, improvisation plays an important role in how serendipity can function as a coordinate phenomenon.

Improvisation is the convergence of performance and composition (Bailey, 1980; Bastien & Hostager, 2002; Barrett, 2002; Moorman & Miner, 2002; Magni et al., 2008). It entails exploring, continual experimenting, tinkering with possibilities without knowing where one’s queries will lead or how action will unfold (Akgün & Lynn, 2002; Barrett, 2002). Performing and composing simultaneously involves practitioners making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind of script or plot (Gladwell, 2005). Improvisation focuses on the ongoing process of action being structured as the performer goes. It may be said then that improvising needs a structure, which is tied to the notions of process and event (Dean, 1992). Within this structure, freedom and constraint are in accurate balance. As loose as improvisation can be, its very constraints liberate participants through unexpected discoveries (Danzico, Archives of design research 2013.02. vol 26. no1 102 2010a). In light of these thoughts, improvisation is the restless quest for serendipity (Coker, 1964; Danzico, 2010a); it is shaped by several constraints such as environmental factors, audience responses (Danzico, 2010a), and people’s life experiences, as well as personality including intellect, emotion and habit (Cocker, 1964; Miner, Bassof & Moorman, 2010).

The study of improvisation has been widely developed by the performing arts such as music and theatre. Both practices hold a particular skill that deals with unexpectedness in turbulent environments. In this case, design groups have much to learn from improvisation “that accents conversational energy and inventive flexibility, from art forms that disrupt orthodox standards of coherence, judgment, and value with a spirit of exploration and restless innovation” (Fischlin & Heble, 2004:35). In other words, improvisation involves “responses commensurate to a situation” (Blum, 1998:28) and negotiation between performers (Barrett, 2002). The relationship between performer and instruments/artefacts, and the performer and listeners is paramount in improvisation. The conversational dynamics of performers/artefacts/listeners constitutes the organization of improv practices towards serendipity. Conversation is how performers develop their improvisational process (Berliner, 2004; Monson, 1996). For instance, jazz musicians improvise by exchanging a musical vocabulary full of structural elements such as rhythm, melody, tempo and harmony. When jazz musicians perform, they create a unique style of music while confronting an equally unique set of challenges (Cho, 2010:6). Besides delivering a ready product, they continuously create that product in the moment (Cho, 2010).

Similarly in design teams, the exchange of ideas constitutes a sort of improvisational language. The designer’s skills range from sketching to building 3D models. Barrett (2002) suggests that a counterpart to the improvised song in design process would be rapid prototyping, with regular updating and changing of design prototypes (often controlled by engineers in the end of the process). The American design consultancy, IDEO, has adopted a collaborative culture of prototyping early in the life of a project as a way of creating “just enough” ideas to allow the team to learn something and move on (Brown, 2009). As in improvisatory jam sessions in which performers collectively grapple with new and unexpected musical structures, design prototypes can precipitate serendipitous ideas (Chung, 2009); prototypes indeed earn good answers for unpredictable problems by experimenting with different possibilities. Chung (2009) discusses the implications of Cross-Functional Collaborative Prototyping (CFCP) in design process. In this paper, however, CFCP is renamed to Collaborative Early Prototyping (CEP) because the nature of collaborative prototyping analyzed here did not satisfy with the requirement of the nature of cross-functional. Still, the CEP is a method that brings the construction of prototypes to the beginning of the process as a way to boost collaborative creativity in design teams. In this method, ideation, embodiment and critique are three fundamental behaviours with prototypes that keep the flow of the creative design process (Chung, 2009). Ideation represents new ideas generated in group interaction and creates new queries that supposedly drive the group creativity, just like jazz musicians negotiate musical structures in jam sessions. Embodiment is the process of externalization of individual internal thoughts through tangible models. When prototypes are shared in the group, members can then see, touch, judge, and evaluate new ideas. This process is called critique and it is crucial to the design process because it can create positive debate that leads to the refinement of ideas and the narrowing down of possibilities to specific solutions. “Prototypes give everyone an opportunity to recognize and trust others’ ideas” (Chung, 2009:4). This is similar to jazz improvisation, in which musicians build trust on fellows’ abilities.

These three modes in CEP – ideation, embodiment, and critique – elucidate what designers perform everyday at work. Then, may these behaviours produce serendipity in design ideation process? They can be viewed as the rules that govern the impromptu performances in design teams. Here a link can be drawn to jazz and theatre improvisation. According to Hodson (1997) improvisation includes performing roles and behaviours which guide performance to its paragon. Many people relate improvisation to a chaotic, erratic and random phenomenon; on the contrary, improvisation is an “art form governed by a series of rules towards specific goals” (Gladwell, 2005:113). In this paper, three rules of improvisation are related to respond to the question of how to achieve serendipity in design group setting. They are the alternation between leading and following roles, the rule of agreement and provocative competence.

Alternation between leading and following roles keeps the flow of negotiation, by constantly shifting leadership roles and giving meaning to the role of fellowship or “comping” (Barrett, 2002). Comping is a skill widely used by jazz musicians, and it aims at creating support to soloists and maintaining the mood of the improvisational song. The rule of agreement states that everything offered to the ongoing performance should be accepted by fellow performers (Gladwell, 2005). In theatre, for instance, if an actor turns down the initiative dialogue of a fellow actor, the improvisatory negotiation might fail and conflict, rather than serendipity, might come up to surface. However, in improvisation even conflict can impart positive discoveries in performance. This is the provocative competence – an improvisational tactic that forces performers to exceed their own abilities, to breakthrough in unexpected occasions, and interrupt habitual patterns in performance (Barrett, 2002). Miles Davis routinely performed provocative competence by demanding musicians to try new challenges (Barrett, 2002; Davis, 1989). When in a jazz band a drummer decides to double the tempo as a cue for change, the musicians are compelled to follow the drummer’s lead. In this situation, a tension is created to push the group in a new direction. Disruptions are beneficial when musicians have sufficient experience and competency to respond to the provocation without relying on stock phrases or clichéd musical ideas (Barrett, 2002). The three rules of improvisation – alternation between leading and following roles, rule of agreement and provocative competence – set up a structure for chance encounters in collaborative teams. This is what jazz musicians call “the groove” – “something that unites the improvisational roles...into a satisfying musical whole” (Monson, 1996:26). The groove is the momentum that holds structural constraints and transcendental freedom in improvisation.

Similarly, one of the main objectives of CEP is to allow for positive momentum in creative teams (Chung, 2009). Figure 1 illustrates how CEP method can be conducted to enhance collaboration in design teams.

Figure 1 Fig. CEP to conduct an effective collaboration (Chung, 2009)

Based on Figure 1, this paper attempts to introduce the improvisational rules as a transformative method towards serendipity. In the next section, a design team is investigated through a method of observation. In this observation, we consider the main aspects of CEP (i.e. ideation, embodiment, and critique) along with the main rules of improvisation (i.e. alternation between leading and following roles, rule of agreement, and provocative competence). The intent is to, through an improvisational analysis, see how design teams precipitate serendipitous ideas. Cross & Cross (1995) reflect on the necessity of a deeper investigation of individuals’ behaviours when they are performing design ideas. Communicative modes, verbal or non-verbal, such as body and facial expressions, gestures, and laughs can denote different meanings and affect a collaborative performance in many ways. Presumably, these communicative modes are the cues that can validate serendipity in any group performance.

3. Method

The research method is qualitative, and attempts to explore a group of four designers working in a creative process to develop interactive products for healthcare systems. The participants were asked to bring different materials for sketching and prototyping. They also brought in data from initial research, including information provided by the project stakeholders. The studio room was full of tables, shelves, and boards which could serve as support for interaction and the development of ideas. They were also provided with a projector and a printer.

3.1. Procedure

The group members arranged a space in the room where they could brainstorm and develop ideas. They sat at a table to initiate the project discussions. The participants had at their disposal notebooks, craft materials, drawing materials, laptops, research documents, and samples of an apartment plan. There was no interference by the researcher. The intention was to see designers interacting spontaneously and naturally; that is, the group should improvise without any guidance other than their own design experience.

3.2. Data collection

A camcorder was positioned in order to record as many interactions as possible. The group was featured for one hour in order to clearly capture the CEP modes of ideation, embodiment and critique. The camcorder was the main tool for data collection. It allowed for going back and forth between each collaborative session, distilling the group performance to its essentials. The device was set so that it could catch communicative forms and emerging interaction. The intention was to guarantee the clear screening of warm ups, errors, tensions, agreements, turn taking, dialogue, ideation, embodiment and critiques.

3.3. Data Analysis

The collected data is analyzed in a way to respond to and evaluate the research questions and hypotheses. According to the literature, serendipity may be enacted by ideation, embodiment and critique in CEP. Likewise, serendipity is enabled by the three rules of improvisation in performing arts – alternation of leading and following roles, rule of agreement and provocative competence. The improvisational rules serve here as methodical elements for analysis. This paper proposes to look at how these six supposed triggers of serendipity relate when designers exchange ideas through prototyping. Furthermore, by interrelating those serendipitous behaviours, this paper looks at what signalizes serendipitous idea creation in a way to gain insight for discussion. The signals can be verbal or non-verbal manifestations such as positive expressions or contradicting reactions. Below, table 1 shows an observation guide for data analysis.

Table 1
The modes of CEP and Rules of Improvisation

CEP Improvisation Rules
Ideation Alternation of Leading and Following
New ideas generated/questions Support/Leadership/turn-taking
Embodiment Rule of Agreement
Externalization/Fabrication Acceptance/Trust/Support
Critique Provocative Competence
Judgment/Evaluation Disruption/Friction

In ideation, while designers share knowledge by presenting some initial ideas and raising some questions, the observed data aims at finding how alternation of leading and following roles, rule of agreement and provocative competence happen in performance. Hypothetically, these relationships can be noticed by turn-taking in the offering of ideas, in the case of alternation of roles; they can be branded by supportive expressions, such as “yes, I agree” or “I see...that’s interesting”, in the case of agreement; and, they can show disruptive instances in the performance, such as “yeah, but...” or “but how about that...”, in the case of provocative competence.

By comparison, the relationship between embodiment and the three rules of improvisation may have a different configuration when designers externalize individual thoughts through tangible artefacts. This observation also aims at comparing how participants’ behaviours change throughout the modes of CEP. By playing with existing artefacts and models, how does the alternation of roles happen in the group? For instance, in embodiment, is there more individual action than collaborative action or action is collective through a consistent process of turn-taking? Furthermore, is there a better sense of understanding that creates more supportive attitudes in the team? Or is there any disruptive action that can jeopardize the design performance? Examples of interaction in embodiment is constant questioning about a built model such as “how would that work” or “what if we do this way...” or more contradicting reactions like “no, it won’t work because...”

The same analytical process is applied to the critique mode. When judging ideas, how do designers alternate their opinions? How do they choose upon the best ideas? Are decisions made through agreement or confrontation? Are there any additional ideas applied to the critique phase that may interrupt or drastically modify the chosen ideas? What are the reactions of the participants towards the ideas generated? Examples of critique expressions are “I am more concerned about that part” or “That’s good! It might have interesting implications...” or “I prefer that idea over this one.”

This paper considers improvisation, particularly in jazz and theatre performances, as a model of serendipitous idea creation (Weick, 2002). Also we acknowledge that CEP is a powerful tool to establish positive momentum in design teams. By relating the rules of improvisation to the CEP modes, we can have a better understanding on how serendipity can be coordinated in creative design environments. The data analysis is for categorizing those links in different levels (weak, normal and strong) that will later point out issues to be addressed in the performance of early prototypes. The results will later serve as information that provides recommendations for future analysis.

4. Results

In this section, the results of the video recording analysis are shown. Figure 2 displays the relationship between the CEP modes and the rules of improvisation.

Figure 2 Relationship between CEP modes and Improvisational Rules

For over thirty minutes, the team discussed ideas and watched videos on the web to acquire some inspiration. According to Figure 2, during the discussion of new ideas – ideation –, it is clear that alternation between following and leading roles and provocative competence are stronger aspects than agreement. Nevertheless, the alternation between leading and following occurred with a concentration on leading roles. Because agreement was a weak aspect of ideation, following behaviours became almost inexistent in the group ideation. The few manifestations of agreement were evidenced by expressions such as “Yeah” and “I agree.” The stronger link in ideation was the provocative competence noticeable by many disruptions, which were signalized by expressions such as “Yeah, but”, “What about that...”, “No, I think we should...” Those verbal patterns were overly repetitive and, as a consequence, might have generated too much friction in interaction. It is valid to reiterate that the rules of improvisation are interdependent. If in ideation, agreement did not take place as much as the other rules, some offerings might have been turned down in the collaborative interaction causing the group to be either stuck on just a few thoughts or trapped in arguments and contradictions. Figure 3 shows a picture of the initial group setting.

Figure 3 Design Team in Ideation mode

In the following fifteen minutes, one of the members decided to build a model of one of the ideas discussed. He moved away from the table to get a piece of card board and tools to create the mock-up. A few moments later, a second fellow started to build another prototype on another idea generated in the discussion. As shown in Figure 2, embodiment possesses a more balanced improvisatory performance. Leading and following roles were clear and had a structured turntaking; that is, when a member was building the prototype (leading) the other would watch it and make questions about it (following). At this point, little disruption took place. In fact, the crafting of prototypes was quite individual in the group performance in the first minutes. Then, when a prototype took form, everybody started to assume different behaviours. Now the alternation of roles was increasingly constant and organized. Each member started to offer their thoughts one at a time and verbal expressions took a different format. It could be seen more agreement and gestures such as pointing out to a specific detail in the model or even acting out a character to simulate a certain scenario ( Figure 4). Verbal expressions such as “Cool!”, “That’s nice” and “Let’s do it” denote a more positive attitude from participants. Disruptions took place with more assertive expressions than those manifested in the ideation phase. The designers performed provocative competence by using expressions such as “What if we do this way,” “How about changing this,” “Let me add something to that.” Instead of turning down ideas, the designers challenged themselves by building new ideas on previous ones. In other words, the externalization of internal thoughts into prototypes allowed for idea refinement and iteration.

Figure 4 Design Team in Ideation mode

Critiques had a strong relationship with the alternation between leading and following roles, and provocative competence. Agreement had a weaker connection. Nonetheless, after judging and evaluating some ideas, designers could validate them. Validation is a key action in this process. In the middle of a conflicting phase such as critiques, validation remains crucial to successful performance. Blum (1998) states that in poetry improvisation, for instance, the audience, after hearing a remarkable piece, should reward the performer with a gift or a kind of acclamation. This improvisatory tradition is still reflected in contemporary comedy when the audience laughs or applauds the performer, and in jazz when the ensemble meets after the performance and talk about that impressive solo (Berliner, 1994). Interestingly, the chosen ideas in the design team were the ones crafted into prototypes. Models might have a positive effect in the critique mode by adding authentication to the creative process.

4.1. Reflection

By correlating the CEP modes with the rules of improvisation several interpretations can be discussed. First, ideation should be part of embodiment [1]. Second, embodiment should include acting out of ideas [2]. And third, critiques should entail validation of individual performance [3].

[1] Individuals should offer beforehand sketches, mock-ups or found objects that may represent their initial idea. Without a tangible element, it is more likely that the group interaction fails in delivering innovative ideas; the group enters into a negative mood and cannot keep the conversation going. In CEP, ideation is the mode in which designers generate initial ideas, raise questions, and share personal experiences (Chung, 2009). In the video, the group spent a long time discussing ideas instead of interacting with them and make the conversation more assertive and agreeable. The results of the observation concurs with Chung when he states that the process of ideation would also be more productive when people physically interact with a tangible [or existing] artefact, which helps to share different perspectives for discussion (2009:3). Artefacts bring a sort of accuracy or a certain credibility to the negotiation of ideas. They are the medium for trading thoughts in collaborative environments. That is because, found objects or artefacts are the living proof of past experiences. They tell a story about a situation that might be related to the discussion. According to Brown (2009) and Lawrence & Thomas (1988), people easily connect to stories, and designers should act more as storytellers rather than problem-solvers.

[2] Prototypes might not be enough to achieve serendipity. In improvisation, an important factor to innovation and positive discoveries is performance. In collaborative design teams, designers should act out ideas. 3D models should be part of imaginary scenarios in which designers play a role. Going back to The Three Prices of Serendip tale, the princes would discover unexpected things by exploring the unknown. In a way, designers should adopt the same behaviour as the three princes of Serendip. Serendipity is certainly hidden in an environment; by sitting at a table might reduce the chances of positive encounters. And if the metaphor serves, jazz ensembles and theatre troupes cannot perform without a stage, a scenery, instruments and so on. Based on the observation, design teams call for better structured CEP with set ups that go beyond the table, the chair and the cardboard creating thus an augmented experience of prototyping.

[3] Critiques are also dependable on embodiment. Prototypes offer the possibility of validation after the group judge and evaluate ideas. Validation keeps the ongoing process and defines “touchpoints” in the design performance. These touchpoints, according to the video observation, were the positive moments when the group agreed upon an idea. Arguably, the touchpoints are forms of serendipity and rewards to the group; there is a sense of tremendous satisfaction and accomplishment in the group. Examples of touchpoints can be a gesture or word of approval by a fellow participant, or the refinement of old ideas that show clear changes in the product/experience use (e.g. “the handle of the fridge door works better on the right side”).

Assumedly, these three resultants – storytelling, augmented prototyping and definition of touchpoints – are the fundaments that provide a framework to serendipitous idea creation considering the rules of improvisation and the CEP method. Storytelling put in perspective rich experiences related to a given problem. As observed in the videos, at moments, participants would tell stories about their grandparents, relatives, and past situations. Stories hold an intricate knowledge, which is able to offer meaningful insights to the method of CEP. Augmented prototyping leverages designers to be actual performers of experiences. It places design solutions near the implementation phase. The augmented prototyping idea delves in the process of performing and composing at the same time just like jazz musicians improvise impromptu songs. An improvised song is an idea generated, embodied, refined and implemented all at once in performance. Likewise, augmented prototyping allows for improvisation and consequently the achievement of serendipity. Finally, the touchpoints are nodes in collaborative design performance that has to be highlighted. It is a fashion of evaluating and iterating ideas by identifying them in the creative process. Touchpoints refer to authenticity, which is in a way the mark of a new discovery. It is important then that these touchpoints be visually represented to the group.

In summary, the alternation between leading and following roles, provocative competence and rule of agreement should have the same impact in each of the CEP modes. These rules will promote more embodied ideation (with tangible artefacts), enable more performable embodiment (with designers acting out ideas within an environment), and constitute critiques that validate individual performances in group interaction (as a sort of reward). In this scope, this paper recommends that storytelling, augmented prototyping and definition of touchpoints in performance take place in CEP method. Serendipity is a product of an ongoing dynamic process of exploring, accepting and modifying the new. Figure 5 shows how the method of CEP should look like with the addition of an improvisational method.

Figure 5 Adapted CEP Method

The rules of improvisation should work in balance with the CEP modes. This balance can be achieved through the new resultants of this observation – storytelling, augmented prototyping and definition of touchpoints. They channelize performance towards serendipitous ideas and unexpected insights chiefly responsible for mutual learning, benefits and positive momentum in design performance.

5. Conclusion

This paper goes through an intricate process of observation of a design team working with early prototypes based on the CEP method. The main question of this analysis is how designers in CEP find serendipity in collaborative idea creation. As a model of collaborative efficiency towards coordinated serendipity, improvisation presents a process of performing and composing simultaneously governed by rules of interaction–alternation of leading and following roles, rule of agreement and provocative competence. By relating these rules with the modes of CEP – ideation, embodiment and critique –, it is found that the achievement of serendipity in collaborative design teams can be linked with the process of performing and composing at the same time; that is, ideation, embodiment and critique should be performed in unison. To do that this paper recommends that design teams should adopt the use of storytelling, augmented prototyping and definition of touchpoints. This potential method can arguably facilitate serendipity in CEP. It is vital then to understand the techniques involved in the performance of this “new” method. Storytelling has been subject of user experience studies (Brooks and Quesenbery, 2010). The use of scenarios and personas as well as storyboards may serve as ways of telling stories. In service design, there are several tools that explore a new application of prototyping techniques (Stickdorn & Schneider, 2012). One of them is “staging” and it involves designers to act out ideas in context. Role-play is another example and serves as the application of personas in performance. These could relate to the proposed augmented prototyping, that is, the actual performance of design ideas. Finally, touchpoints are actual iteration of these prototyped ideas into context. By iterating, designers evaluate, refine and validate ideas into authentic realizations. In other words, touchpoints are the “packages” that carrie serendipity. In sum, this paper states that CEP in design process should be enhanced to a status of performance. Improvisation is based on a highly sophisticated performance which likely increases that possibility of serendipitous discoveries. Just like in jazz and theatre performances, design may need an enlightened stage for performing tangible ideas.



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