The Role of Storytelling in Design: Separating Fact from Fiction

There comes a time in every buzzword’s life where it becomes a deafening roar and, for the past few years, ‘storytelling’ has been brought up increasingly frequently in design circles. As evangelists continue to swear by the value storytelling brings to design and critics remain skeptic, this article aims to differentiate truth from myth and find out if great design really does owe something to storytelling.

When we talk about ‘Storytelling in Design’, it is important to note that we are not referring to one particular entity but a wide range of practices that draw from these arguably overlapping domains. The varied merits of storytelling in design have been gaining traction for quite some time: Storytelling is often cited as a method for designing user experiences and, in just the last few years, the web has produced countless articles on how to build a narrative with visuals and copy. More recently, every single app was said to be telling a story and ‘responsive storytelling’ was declared as a ‘Design trend to watch’. And, yet, while there is definitely more support for than rejection of storytelling in design, you have critics like designer Stefan Sagmeister who call out the whole thing as b***s***.

Do any of these arguments hold weight? Is there any truth to this story? It’s time to investigate!

As a storyteller and designer, I have been able to assess how storytelling plays a beneficial role in design as well as the areas where it doesn’t hold any substantial relevance. Listed below are the ways in which storytelling can be an effective approach for creating compelling user experiences (the facts!) but also where the hype around the subject is quite superfluousm (the fiction or myths if you will!)

Overview

THE FACTS:

Storytelling Humanizes User Personas

Storytelling Creates Emotional Design

Storytelling Enables Better User Experiences

THE FICTION:

Great Design Requires Great Storytelling

Designers Should Identify as Storytellers

Storytelling is Equally Important Throughout the Design Process


The Facts

STORYTELLING HUMANIZES USER PERSONAS

Detail from a user persona for a Care Care app that uses chracterization and narrative to represent its human subject. (Image credit: Athena Petropoulos)

Great human-centric design is based on knowing the user really well. To think of the user more humanely, she should be approached as writers and storytellers approach their protagonists- who is she, what are her circumstances and desires and what problem(s) is she encountering? If you feel for your user as much as you feel for Juliet when she does not receive the message intended for her, you would be much more interested in designing a reliable communication system for her!

This brings us to the next area where storytelling helps create great design:

STORYTELLING CREATES EMOTIONAL DESIGN

As we become more and more attached to our devices and use technology to solve some of the world’s most persisting problems, it is increasingly important to not let our devices and systems create a mechanical environment bereft of emotion. Design can not only help create innovative solutions but also make them emotionally resonant. As human beings, we respond more favorably and attach more strongly to things that move us more than the ones that ‘just work’. Thinking about the stories that touch us and finding ways to translate them in design work, even tangentially, helps create real and meaningful connections.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are well known for their speculative/critical design practice that creates complex emotional experiences for their users. For the ‘Placebo’ project, the designers were ‘interested in the narratives people develop to explain and relate to electronic technologies’. ‘GPS Table’, one of the prototypes in the series, creates unexpected relationships between the user and the eponymous table. When the table is outside, the display shows its coordinates but when it is indoors, it just says ‘lost’. The user, thus, has to choose between ‘taking care’ of the table or letting it ‘stay lost’.

A user interacting with Dunne and Raby’s GPS Table (Image credit: Mike Levy)

The takeaway here is just as applicable for conventional design: the user will feel more emotionally connected to artifacts and interfaces if they are designed to provide opportunities for building personal narratives.

The website for The Eddy, a restaurant in New York’s lower east side, is designed like a book cover. It opens to a single striking shot of the restaurant’s front with glimpses of the life within that does much more to stimulate a visitor’s imagination than generic restaurant information and a plethora of food pictures. To some, it may bring to mind Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks (itself inspired by a New York restaurant) and, to others, warm memories of times spent dining with friends and family. By drawing from the restaurant’s actual setting and allowing users to construct their own narratives, The Eddy comes across more than just a place to eat.

Screenshot from the The Eddy NYC website (Image credit: Visit Website)

STORYTELLING ENABLES BETTER USER EXPERIENCES

Perhaps the most widely accepted application of storytelling is in designing user experiences. A story or narrative is often defined as a sequence of events and, in designing the User Experience, we try to map out the user journey via a set of actions and events as well. Here, storytelling achieves a lot of significance because it allows designers to think about the context and entire range of factors that will be in play with their designed creation. By envisioning the full spectrum of lead-up, interaction and follow-up experienced by the user, designers can create better experiences and not just isolated entities removed from how they are actually used.

The web experience for Seattle’s Space Needle is a good example of storytelling at work for creating a more delightful and engaging user experience. Though it has many detractors, parallax scrolling is used to good effect here because it is an intuitive choice for the user’s journey from the bottom of the Space Needle to the very top (and beyond!) Information comes in chunks depending on where the user is in the experience and the perspective shifts multiple times to keep things interesting along the way.

Screenshot from the Space Needle website (Image credit: Visit Website)

The Every Last Drop website borrows even more heavily from the basic elements of storytelling- character, plot and setting- to make its statistics palatable: the user is able to follow an astronaut as he goes through his day moving from his bedoom to commute to outer space.

Screenshot from the Every Last Drop website (Image credit: Visit Website)

The Fiction

GREAT DESIGN REQUIRES GREAT STORYTELLING

While design should borrow from storytelling wherever it is actually beneficial, it is important to not get carried away with the emphasis placed on it. You could be telling a beautiful story with your user experience and design a concept perfectly suited for a user but if the product doesn’t work easily or effectively, the user will have no use for your fables. Remember: if the user wants a great story, they can go pick up some Tolstoy or watch a Bergman film.

The reason Design has become so powerful is because of the wonderful products and beautiful user experiences it creates- storytelling in design should be in service of these objectives, not competing with them. Moreover, depending on the scale and nature of your project, the actual time you spend ‘storytelling’ could be quite insignificant compared to the time you have to spend on problem definition, research, conceptualization, prototyping and testing. This does not mean that you will not be able to design well: just that, as designers, we prioritize and adapt our methods to what needs to be done. At times, that requires coming up with a story to help us understand an issue or create something resonant and, at others (and not necessarily mutually exclusively), it’s just about problem-solving, the aesthetic or the affordance of a product.

For what its worth, here is just one measure of how peripheral storytelling can be to design: IDEO’s Design Kit, the company’s rich resource on human-centric design, features just one mention of the word story in its Mindsets interviews and only three Methods that directly reference it:

DESIGNERS SHOULD IDENTIFY AS STORYTELLERS

In narratology (the formal study of narrative), even a sentence as simple as ‘the king died’ can qualify as a narrative so claiming storytelling in whatever you do is pretty easy. Even Sagmeister admitted (albeit dismissively) to bits of narrative elements in rollercoaster design so there will always be a way to construct a narrative from design whether the designer intends it or not. That’s just how the human brain works: by making connections, creating relationships and anticipating cause-and-effect. Moreover, all designed objects and experiences do inevitably become a part of a user’s story in some way, big or small.

However, there is no need for desingers to hop onto the storytelling bandwagon just as there was no need for everyone in advertising to subscribe to the ‘content’ parade. There is nothing wrong with identifying with your ultimate objective- to design great products, experiences and systems. Writers design narratives and filmmakers design the Mise-en-scène all the time in their work but yet they only identify with what they ultimately want to achieve. Designers should do the same so we can have less designers struggling to find and articulate ways in which they utilize storytelling in their work. Utilizing great storytelling in design is welcome, tall tales about its relevance are not.

STORYTELLING IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT THROUGHOUT THE DESIGN PROCESS

In the general design process, the one stage where storytelling finds least applicability is in prototyping. Once you have put in the time in user research and designing personas and user experiences, it comes down to iterative improvements and tweaks. This is where a designer who is focused on making and improving user interaction truly shines. If there’s any similarity to storytellers here, it is to do with the incremental improvement that goes in most great work, regardless of its nature, and if there is a story here, it is one of trial-and-error!

WAY FORWARD

Storytelling is historically and culturally understood as an innate human quality and, thus, human-centered design, by its very definition, cannot ignore it. Roland Barthes talks about how narrative is present in every single human creation from cave paintings to novels and says it is ‘simply there like life itself’ (Barthes 1977, p.79)1. To put it another way, storytelling is present in design on the basis of its pervasiveness alone and so it will always be relevant to the field.

Ignoring or rejecting any human behavior or characteristic would be counter-productive to design but the purpose of this article in picking story apart from design was to determine the extent and nature of their symbiotic relationship. Rather than questioning the role of story in design in its entirety, it is much more useful to gauge the applicability of storytelling in design in terms of specific design practices as discussed in the preceding sections.

Let us know what you think about the merits of storytelling as a design practice in the comments below and feel free to share any relevant examples from your own experience.

1 Barthes, R. (1977) Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, in: Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana).


Author’s Biography

Babar Suleman is a director, experience designer and writer. He writes about design at Smashing Magazine and Crazy Egg, and is currently working on his startup, Counsell, a platform where professionals can give and get paid advice.

Babar is the recipient of a Hearst and NYC Media Lab Fellowship and his design work has been awarded by Intel and Hyperakt’s Re3 StoryHack. His film and new media work has been screened at showcases and festivals in New York City, Washington D.C., Paris and Los Angeles. His research on designing a transmedia experience has been published in the Journal of Media Studies (Routledge: London) and presented at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies in Montreal, Canada.

Babar is a Fulbright scholar and received his MFA in Design & Technology from Parsons School of Design in New York City.

@B_Su

Website

contact@babarsuleman.com