Storytelling by Design

Storytelling by Design

I’ve been pulling together my thoughts on a design approach based on the power of storytelling. While I still haven’t quite figured out what it is, I have started to chain some realizations together.

The Failure of Thing-Focused Design

The failure of much design stems from the lack of engagement between creator and audience. As we creators grow more and more specialized, the tendency to describe what we are doing with precise bursts of jargon increases, balkanizing the creative landscape with specialists who spend more time talking to themselves than communicating ideas to regular people. And yet, it’s the people that matter most, both in terms of social fulfilment and in revenue.

While the idea of “story” in design is not new in the context of Human-Computer Interaction, Usability, and Experience Design, I haven’t yet seen a whole lot of emphasis on the quality of storytelling. The literature cites story as a way of defining a user, which is useful for workflow visualization; ironically, storytelling itself is not part of the toolkit.

Storytelling Doesn’t Just Describe Relationships; It Also Creates Them!

I’m interested in a process that’s more immediate and primal. I think of the “art of storytelling” (as opposed to just having a descriptive story) as a two-way modelling process. It’s a more engaging way to introduce individual people to new ideas and concepts. Stories and storytelling go back to the dawn of humanity; it is arguably the way we understand the world, and it’s also arguably the most compelling commonality in the development of all our media technology. Yes, specialized jargon is inevitable when discussing the inner workings of the technology amongst ourselves. However, we must recognize that the inner workings themselves are relevant only to other practitioners. What matters most to me is putting that technology in service of the storytelling; becoming a better storyteller is at the heart of being a designer with relevance in the real world. This is performance by proxy, showmanship applied with purpose. When you help someone understand new technology in the context of their understanding of the world, they can co-creation the new reality with you because they can envision their place in it. That’s the power of great storytelling. Great exposition doesn’t reach as far. It’s just boring, which anyone who has had to read a functional spec can attest.

The difference in approach can be illustrated as follows:

  • The specialist designer provides a menu of services and skills related to production, and then asks the client what they want. What format? How many colors? What’s the copy? How many pages? What should it look like? And then, they produce to an evolving specification based on user modelling and iterative testing.

  • The storyteller-designer, by comparison, first asks about motivation and desire, and designs for the dramatic moments. The primary goal is not to produce to a functional spec, but to create a story about the cllient, with the client in the hero-protagonist role. Only then are the production skills are applied to create causal elements in the real world. The difference is that the story doesn’t remain a fiction; when executed well, the story makes the client’s reality. And if all goes well, the story takes on a life of its own.


p>I believe the concept of the storyteller-designer is what I’m actually moving toward. It focuses not on process and technology, but on creating events placed in a meaningful human context. And that’s where all the action is, IMHO.

Mind you, I am not saying that Usability is useless. However, “user models” and “archetypes” are mere descriptive anchors; the role of “story” in the context of Usability is to package user behaviors into a concise blueprint useful for general systems modelling. The flow of information is one-way: behavior is observed, iterated upon, and re-observed. While the users are involved in the process as the “target” audience, they are more like statistical parameters in the system design. That’s fine, and that’s not what I’m talking about.

The approach of Storytelling by Design, as I’m trying define it, is about interfacing with clients using an approach that emphasizes story as the primary unit of understanding, as opposed to “pages”, “Flash”, “PHP”, “look and feel” and “rounds of revision”. You can also think of it as “speaking the language of the client” taken a little farther; using storytelling techniques in client communication to create engagement and understanding of the creative process. It’s also a given that storytelling is the focus of the creative work; this is well understood in any customer-facing endeavor that’s intended to be viewed by actual people (e.g. Advertising)

Later this week I’ll talk a bit more about how the process of practicing “Storytelling by Design” works.

UPDATE: I just found this article that talks about something very similar! So I’m not alone in this :-)

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  1. Ian 18 years ago

    This thread should be required reading for every designer. It’s so frustrating to see sites that look great, but are completely unusable.

    Designers think all they need is a logo and a color scheme to create something, but they really need to understand the user if they ever want to be successful.

  2. Madhu 18 years ago

    Fantastic !!

    I am working on concept Relationship Design.

    The best products / services are the ones which connect emotionally to the user.

    Stories are the best way to establish a deeper relationship with anyone (including your customers).

  3. lee 18 years ago

    A while back, I realized that one of the advantages I have as a freelancer, is the freedom to tailor my relationships with my clients. One of the first things I ask, whether I’m in a meeting with an individual client or the CEO of a company, is to ask them to tell me a story about a defining moment of their childhood – a time when they discovered something about themselves that surprised them, but that they kept returning to.

    If they ask for an example, I tell them about when I was eight, and did a back flip off the high dive at the pool and hit my head very hard on the board and just sank to the bottom of the pool. I remember waiting at the bottom for someone to come and get me, watching the blood from my headwound turning the water around me pink, then a moment of clarity when I realized that the no-one saw the accident and that I’d have to deal with it myself. I swam to the side of the pool and pulled myself out of the water. It was a big moment, realizing that the people who were there to do their jobs, sometimes wouldn’t, and that I was capable of handling the emergency, even though I was injured and only a little kid.

    Usually, I don’t need to tell the story, the clients grok it instantly and their eyes light up. One of the best ones concerned a woman who was Jewish in the Midwest. One day her locker was badly defaced by some idiot neo-nazi scum. She looked at it and realized that she didn’t care and that these guys were idiots. Rather than having the effect of intimidating her, it freed her up to not give a hoot about what other people thought. She felt a huge surge of power that’s kept her energized. She’s in her sixties now, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.

    I find that when I keep these stories in mind when I’m working, allowing them to influence my decisions, not only is my connection with my client better, but the work speaks to the audience better, even though the story isn’t really present or at the forefront of the design.

    I’m into storytelling. I have a ton of books about it. BTW, There’s a free storytelling workshop on Tuesday nights at Harvard that’s run by Brother Blue. If anyone’s interested in attending. I can see if I can dig up the info.

  4. lee 18 years ago

    I shall never post without previewing again.

  5. lee 18 years ago

    Brother Blue offers free storytelling workshops to the public every Tuesday night at the Episcopal Divinity School, a seminary located on 99 Brattle St.. Time wasn’t listed in the article. He also performs live on Cambridge Community Television every Wednesday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.