Introducing Ecologies. A Useful Tool For All Storytellers To Start A Project

How about having a tool to structure your brainstorms? To make sure you cover all aspects of a topic? Ecologies have been very useful to me as a Service Designer, which prompted me to share this tool and adapt it to storytelling.

In this post I’ll break it down for you. It should only take a few minutes and it can follow you in many years to come.

10 second introduction

An ecology is a visual tool used in brainstorming or in grasping a topic. By dividing a circle into Who, What, Why, Where, When and How and forcing you to come up with both very concrete and very abstract items, you’re sure to get a 360 degree view of what you’re about to work on.

Beginning is half done

When you start a project, say an idea for a new film, you could easily jot ideas down on a paper. But why not group them? Ecologies are systematical. The purpose of ecologies is to make you more creative whilst having a visual representation to revisit further in your creative process.

A structured start like this is a great stepping stone for what comes next.

Remember, this tool is not meant to be shown to anyone else. There’s no right and wrong. It’s a tool to help your ideas flow and map stuff.

Let’s look at the tool

Let’s get visual. This is how an ecology looks.

An example of a finished ecology

This particular one is already ‘filled out’ — it’s from one of my personal projects, where I was designing a service for a creative agency in Cape Town. I started out by identifying all aspects of their business using the ecology. Everything from what mobile devices they had (What) to the purpose of creating a future for their son (Why).

How to fill it out

Grab a pen. Draw a circle and divide it on 6 parts, one for each of Who, What, Why, Where, When and How. Write your topic in the center of the circle.

Now it’s time to map your topic out. Come up with all items you can think of for your topic. You can take a section at a time but will often get ideas for the other ones. If some items seems fit for more than one section, no worries, write it wherever it makes sense for you.

From concrete to abstract

Near the circle of the ecology you write the most concrete items. In this example, the most concrete types of ‘What’ is laptops, data, wifi, a Facebook profile and so forth. The most abstract types of ‘What’ is facilitation, mentoring and advice. This spectrum, moving from center and outwards forces you to be very specific but also divergent.

Don’t be afraid to highlight, circle, connect

Group things together

Cape Town is the central office and has connections to other locations

Circle important areas

Office spaces and coffee shops have the same purpose


Use another color for the best ideas

Here are some suggestions for use cases

That’s basically it. Simple but quite powerful when you start to feel fluent in filling it out.

For anyone in visual storytelling here’s how you can use it:

  • Building a universe for your upcoming game? Use the tool to think of every aspect — When is this taking place? When was the last major historic event? Who are its inhabitants? Why are the protagonists driven forward? This way you’ll create a believable setting for your story.
  • Creating a new character? This goes for characters as well. What is she wearing? Why is she standing like that? Why is she always mad? How does she communicate? You’ll start to come up with much more substantial characters which will come across in your final project.
  • Starting a production? If you already got the story covered and are ready to move into pre-production or production, use the ecology to map all resources and challenges at hand. When are major deadlines? Why are you even doing this? Who are loosely tied to the project? This way you won’t miss opportunities.
  • Planning your career? How should you, very concretely, start your next step? Perhaps it’s by picking up the phone and calling your colleague from two years ago. What are your skills? Where are you present, both with physical and online presence. Why are you even in this business? If you don’t question these things you might be going down the wrong path.

Don’t spend more than 30 minutes per ecology

They shouldn’t be presented to anyone, so don’t worry too much about doing it correctly. But do digitise them, so they’re available weeks and months after. Good luck with mapping everything out!

by Emil Villumsen, Co-founder of Craft

Share your filled ecology below for others to get inspired from