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Designing Without Limits

Designing is all about getting one thing: an emotional response from the audience. Nothing more, nothing less.

As designers, we are sellers of looks, a peddler of feelings. I want the audience to feel nostalgic when Alan sings “Remember When”, and I want them to feel like amped-up rodeo-goers when Ronnie belts out “Let the Cowboy Rock”. Any lighting look or cue, any set piece, any gag or effect that happens should be in support of what the artist is trying to convey. There’s another, related concept that goes along with this idea, and it’s the idea of designing without limits. This might at first sound like a fatuous trope ordinarily reserved for hawkers of the more superficial self-help material, but bear with me.

What informs a look? When I say “look”, I refer to anything that might appear on a stage in front of an audience. In my particular context, that stage is nearly always the traditional type – an elevated platform before which sits an audience who have paid money to come see a show. There are other stages, all the world et cetera, and there are a variety of purveyors of some fine performance art that requires naught but people to act and people to watch, but that’s a discussion for another day. In my case, my absolute limits are the size of the space involved, which can be highly variable, and that’s about it. Early in the process of designing, it doesn’t make sense to think about budgets, it doesn’t make sense to think about what sort of gear is available, and perhaps it doesn’t even make sense to think about the physical constraints of reality. Why?

Because we’re going for feelings. And if one limits one’s self to thinking about and visualizing works that fit the budget, fit the space, fit the available technology, that limits the imagination. In fact, the only limitation one should think about in the beginning stages of designing is the limitation of three-dimensional Euclidean space. And even that, while it generally cannot be broken, can be given the appearance of having been bent.

The ultimate point to make here is that problems have solutions. We don’t have Building Stretchers, but we can use forced perspective to fool an audience’s visual perception and make things appear larger than they are. Maybe the money for a flying gag isn’t there, but a mechanical lift will make an equally effective moment within the show.

This is not to say that things like budget and the available technology or gear aren’t important, they are, and they certainly inform decisions in the later stages of coming up with a design. But when fleshing out an idea, or a preliminary sketch, don’t feel bad about throwing all that stuff out the window. Design without limits, then adjust your vision to fit reality. Go the other way, and you might miss something important.

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