Iconic Props–Exploring Design Choices Through Minimal Options


This simple card game introduces to the students the concept of the iconic or signature prop. That single, selected item, placed on the stage by the designer to transport the audience to a particular time and place, thus aiding the storytelling that they are about to experience.

Activity Objectives:

Student will be able to:

  • Analyze a location to determine iconic or signature elements.
  • Choose among various options the strongest choice to communicate the designer’s intent.
  • Engage with each other in creatively selecting design options.
  • Appreciate the design process as a system of choices being intentionally made by a designer.

Activity Goals:

  • Engaging the students in a creative manner.
  • Exposing “choice making” as a fundamental aspect of the design process.
  • Identify script informed clues in supporting design choices.
  • Discover how design elements can inform audience members of year, period, region of setting.


The class is provided a list of 13 different locations each associated with a standard playing card and each of which might be the setting for a production. For example: Ace = Teen’s bedroom, 2 = High school classroom, 3 = On board ship, 4 = Mediaeval Castle, 5 = Small town diner, 6 = Western Ranch, 7 = Beach, 8 = Fancy restaurant, 9 = College classroom, 10 = Flower shop, Jack = Fairy tale house, Queen = Grandmother’s house, King = The Office of the President of the United States. This list can be posted on the board or given as a handout. Next each student is dealt 3 cards.  Three cards allow multiple rounds being played with a single deal and increases the complexity as “no repeats” are allowed…so players that have the same card/location must think of a second or third iconic prop.

When randomly selected a student is asked to tell the class a single object that they see as they view the location determined by one of their dealt cards. The instructor can ask the question, “You walk into the theatre and there is a bright light focused on this single item which has been selected to transport you to a particular location…What do you see?” Once the student states the object, others try to guess the location. As the game progresses, no object can be repeated, so the degree of difficulty can increase over time. The instructor can point out contrasting design information as choices are being made. For example: What items can suggest a (2) High School Classroom rather than a (9) College classroom? High school classrooms also serve as the office of the teacher so there may be a desk with personal items (family photos, plants) and high school classrooms are often subject specific so posters on the wall may suggest a social studies classroom vs. a foreign language classroom. By contrast, college classrooms are more generic, desks and teaching technology equipment are dominant. There is no personalization. There may be an advertisement for a tutor or magazine offer.   The instructor can also speak to the use of stereotype to suggest location. For example: (Queen) Grandmother’s house might have antique furniture, doilies on the tables and chairs, lots of family photos, china plates hanging on the walls, etc. Yet the student’s own experience with Grandmother (Condo in Florida) might be quite different. However, the stereotype “sells” the location better.

Repeat the process until as many students as the instructor desires have shared their location and prop selection. Each exchange supports the instructor to reinforce design choice making and audience expectations to be transported through the willing suspension of disbelief to a unique time and place to enjoy a production. The instructor can also make evaluative comments on the strength of choices, the historical accuracy, the “fit” of a choice to be consistent with an overall production concept, as well as, the creativity being expressed by the student. This simple game actively engages even the most design averse student introducing them to the fundamental concept that scenic and property design is effectively choice making for the purpose of helping to tell a story.


Time Required:  

A minimum of 20 minutes for a standard introduction to design classroom of 20 students.


Required Materials:

  • A deck of standard playing cards
  • A posted or distributed list of identified locations


  • A variation can be asking the class to generate the locations based on plays that they have seen or read. Experienced teachers may be able to use these student sourced locations as effectively as the instructor determined ones.
  • Larger classes can be divided into teams and asked to collaborate to arrive at their iconic prop choice
  • Smaller groups can expand their engagement with their assigned location by first brainstorming multiple items that might be present in the locale and then editing down to the iconic prop choice.
  • The approach can also be adapted to explore concepts like structures and textures rather than just stage properties, although these abstractions can be a bit more challenging for students.


This exercise is not intended to be graded, but rather it is used as a creative way to introduce the process of making choices.

Submitted by:

Mark Shanda, University of Kentucky