From Design to Story, my life as a story thief so far… [PART 1]

Stealing stories in Athens :)

I have accepted that the labels I use to describe my work mean everything and therefore nothing. Design. Social innovation. Storytelling. Ugh. We’re at a dinner party and I’ve already lost you.

The one thing that I am not yet bored of talking about though, is storytelling. I have just spent a brain boosting couple of days at Un/Told a gathering of Digital Storytellers at UEL (University of East London). And there, I got to rehearse how I got interested in storytelling in the first place. So here we go.

I started by being a graphic designer, which entertained my eyeballs for a little while, but felt a bit flat. I then became interested in the wider, more meaningful application of design, and moved to London to learn about design for social impact. I got myself a job as a service designer for the public sector, but most of my projects focused on the first part of the service design process: the part where you immerse yourself in a challenge (for example: being a young carer), try to understand the world from the perspective of people who experience that challenge on a daily basis (young carers, their families, healthcare professionals, etc), so that you and everyone concerned can come up with ideas that will make being a young carer easier. Roughly.

So, because I mostly ever focused on the initial immersive phase, I became a design researcher. But to me, research feels too “extractive.” The kind of trust that you build when you spend a day with a person or a community, get them to open up about their fears, hopes and aspirations… That kind of trust is precious. So I felt like a bit of a thief when I walked away and only used their story as data. What did they get for sharing their internal life with me?

During this process, I also often witnessed how being heard, even if it’s by a researcher rather than therapist, can be healing. Several times, a day of research ended with a heartfelt smile and a relieved sigh: “thanks for listening.” But that was often a side-effect of the process, not its primary intent. The primary intent was the data robbery I mentioned earlier.

So I became more interested in the process of storytelling itself. How can the act of finding, sharing and listening to people’s personal stories be enough of a process in and for itself? And can I do that for a living?

Well, the Un/Told Digital Storytelling conference I mentioned at the start of this post provided me with a bit of an answer…

[… which I’ll disclose in part 2]

Photo from Civic Engagement Deme at Un/Told Digital Storytelling conference by @STRETCHcharity