Story-Based Design

Story-Based Design

I’ve been mulling over the idea of story-based design as a way to describe my design process. What I’m interested in is finding and telling stories that are engaging, uplifting, helpful, and inspiring. I can’t design anything until I can find that angle. To me, design is all about communicating that message through whatever media I can get my hands on.

I think there’s a similarity between what I’m doing with Experience Design, a growing multidisciplinary subset of graphic design. However, a lot of the materials I see on this are less than inspiring. Take this copy, for example, from the AIGA Experience Design page:

What is experience design? Experience design strives to create experiences beyond products and services. Its boundaries extend beyond traditional design.

The prose sounds very clear and insightful, but ironically none of it provides any meaningful experience that I can latch on to. Where’s the relevance to me? Where’s the story? The words are nicely crafted and fit together; any respectable design agency would be proud to have copy like that on their “Our Process” page. What’s missing is a sense of engagement.

The “story-based design” term is also referenced in a few online articles related to usability and human-centered design practice, but this isn’t what I’m talking about either. I can appreciate the value of such practice, and I recognize the importance of focusing on the (duh) user when you’re making things for them. What’s most important, though, is imparting the sense that you’re doing it for them, not around them. That is a critical distinction. It’s nice to know that someone’s doing something to make your work more productive, but really…I want to feel that sense of rapport as well.

The name “story based design” sounds very clunky to me, so it’s just a working title for a philosophy-under-development (PUD). So far, there are four steps:

  1. Get to know a person and his/her world.
  2. Tell that person how he/she is relevant to the world.
  3. Create a story about that person.
  4. Tell the story to the audience that wants to hear it

I’m not naturally a visual person; before I can lay pixels down, I have to have a pretty clear idea of what is being said, why, and how. Essentially, I compose an essay or a story in my head first. I often write my thoughts down too. This becomes the script for the visual design, when I draw upon my associative memory to pick what audiovisual elements will communicate in the best way. Laying out a page for me is like directing a short film. I know I can control the order of how people look on things on the page through composition and contrast, which gives me tremendous expressive power.

It’s not exactly an artistic process, but it’s one that I’m realizing is just as valid. Many designers I talk to are far more talented in the visual realm than I; I’m primarily a word person that just happens to like graphics and programming, and in the past I’ve thought I was somehow not “doing it right”. I no longer believe that’s the case, so here I am making up new terminology again :-)

More in this series:


  1. Tim Beadle 18 years ago

    I may be missing something (and I am in no way an expert!), but isn’t story-based design the same as persona-based design?


  2. Gordon 18 years ago

    Sounds like user stories to me… but regardless of the name it’s an excellent idea.

    We have a separate document (at work, software company) purely for product scenarios. We have a fictious (market specific) company with defined users… Louise is the Project Manager, Dave the CAD engineer etc etc.

    I’ve used a lot of the ideas in that book as the approach is, as you say, to create a full image in your head of WHY and WHO you are ‘creating’ for.. Fab stuff indeed.

  3. Joan 18 years ago

    This reminds me of character analysis, or plot analysis in a theatre design process. Not strange at all, just a liberal arts take on things.

  4. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Thanks for the comments, guys! I’ll make a second pass draft to clarify these issues.

  5. Nollind Whachell 18 years ago

    Sounds like you’re just trying to help people to connect and create meaningful and sustainable relationships with one another.

  6. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Nollind: That’s a good way of cutting through the layers of process. It is at the heart of the matter for just about everything! Thanks!

    The followup thought: The reason I’m thinking about story based design, or some kind of better name for it, is that I believe people respond better to concrete example…this is sort of a business-related move on my part. I could lead off with a statement like that, but I know that I will have to followup with the hard evidence that I know how to deliver on it.

    I am probably projecting a bit of personal philosophy here, which is to separate intention from action when I meet people who have something to sell to me.

  7. Steve 18 years ago

    This is the meat and ‘taters of engaging your audience…..making it experiential for them.