Design = Fiction that is not yet fact

Storytelling : writers :: worldbuilding : designers.

I am a fiction writer turned interaction designer. A career spent writing everything from short stories to presidential speech copy evolved into a career focused not on the story but on how people experienced the story. For me, design is fiction that has yet to become fact. As designers, we are interpreting the weak signals from the future to make possible a world that doesn’t yet exist.

The Age of Worldbuilding

Storytelling is thankfully on the decline as an industry buzzword. You know who tells stories? Writers. Filmmakers. Graphic artists. Storytelling isn’t design, but design is storytelling, and that’s where we find ourselves in a bit of a fog. As our craft has evolved from creating tangible objects (a chair, a toothbrush) to creating interactive objects (autonomous vehicles, intelligent ATMs), we are responsible — more than ever — for understanding the implications of how the world will be shaped beyond just the object we create. For example, when we design autonomous vehicles, we’re not just designing a car. We’re designing alternative business models, transforming insurance industries, creating new methods of machine to machine communication, and even redesigning where and how people live their lives. In that sense, we’re no longer telling a single story. We’re telling many stories. We are building worlds.

Today, solid design work needs to sit atop a carefully constructed view of the world that starts with a series of stories. And so, design researchers are story catchers, who build compelling worlds using the stories we hear during our research. We look across those stories and weave them together into a world to frame and reframe the design challenge and solve the right problem. We listen for the nuggets and relay them back to our team and our stakeholders to generate support. You see, in the age of worldbuilding, having an understanding of the fundamentals of storytelling is more important than ever. But, as a writer, I believe our field is still a bit naive when it comes to the fundamentals — what a story is and how to shape a narrative. Before you can build a house, you need to know how to make bricks. Or at least, where to buy the right bricks. So let’s talk about the basics for a moment.

The Anatomy of a Story: Causality is King

The great EM Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel of the differences between “story” and “plot,” where story was “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence,” and a plot was “also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” He writes, “The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” Forster used the example, “The king died and the queen died” as an example of story, and “The king died and then the queen died of grief” as an example of plot.

I love Forster, but I strongly disagree. The former is a only a catalogue of events and the latter introduces causality, making it…BINGO…a story! Plot is how the story unfolds. But let’s look at that tiny little story for a moment.

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Grief is the bridge of causality that links the two events. In other words, story is a focused chain of events linked by causality. A causes B causes C. And causality is the biggest thing missing in how we tell stories as designers today. We tell “what” stories when we should be telling “why” stories. Where we focus on the bells and whistles, and frankly, they just aren’t that compelling. They don’t touch on the “why” of the product. They don’t communicate the emotional tug that the product creates.

Let’s walk through an example of how to tell a product story with causality. Think back to the autonomous car for a second. We’ll start by picking a perspective: think of how it might impact elderly populations. Imagine Grandma Spaulding. She’s too old to be driving a car, so she’s recently bought into a vehicle sharing plan for an autonomous car. This means a few things:

A) she can spend more time traveling to see her son and her grandchildren, whom she loves to knit scarves for, and, as a result…
B) the children soon have an abundance of scarves, and…
C) they start giving them to their friends as gifts.

A causes B causes C. It’s a story with some promising bones. It’s certainly better than a feature list with some well lit shots of automobile UI and sleek walnut interiors.

The First Tool in Your Kit

If we are going to build worlds, the first thing we need is a prototyping tool — a common language and framework. Like any designer, I love new prototyping tools. I approach each like a curious child on Christmas morning, unwrapping with reverence to discover if what lies beneath is all that I’d imagined it would be. With tools like Pixate, Invision, Flinto, Avocado, and POP, it’s easier than ever to get the right interactions before we get the interactions right. While the cheapest, quickest, and most human-centered way to prototype anything is a story, storytelling might be the one area of design where we lack prototyping tools of any kind. Until now. Get ready for Christmas morning, because I’ve got a new prototyping tool to suggest:


This book is a masterclass on laddering up from ideas, to stories, to plots, to worlds, using the elements of character, setting, genre, and focus to show why some stories are a hit and others fail to connect. This book is a must-have as you begin to envision your design and the future world it articulates. Sure, it’s written and marketed for screenwriters, but screenwriting is nothing more than creating the framework for a film to be designed. It leads to the storyboards that a director will use to comp shots and ensure coverage for each scene. The principles are the same — story, characters, plot, causality, and framing.

If you had to start today…

Here are a couple things you can do today to sharpen your storytelling chops:

1. Check out McKee’s book. Read it all the way through. Use post its. You’ll find passages and concepts quite similar to what we use as designers. Write them out, and note where the craft of screenwriting goes deeper than the craft of persona dev or storyboard copy.

2. Increase your story consumption. Read short fiction (Ray Carver, Richard Bausch, and Tobias Wolff are a great place to start), long fiction (Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, and David Gates are three great starting points,) watch films, go to local theater performances and concerts. How do different mediums bend plot and bring elements to the front for the audience?

3. Learn your story types. If your story is about something new, lead with WHAT it is. If the story is about a differentiator, lead with WHY it is. If the interaction model is new, lead with HOW it works (Tinder = dating app (boring) + swipe left/right (fun!)).

4. Change your POV. Don’t be afraid to be experimental with your narrator. While the story about the guy with the dog trying to find a pet-sitter-on-demand app is interesting, what about telling it from the POV of the dog? Your plot depends on your narrator. If you are stuck with your story, change your narrator and see how it feels.

5. Know your audience. Tailor your story and your design to your audience. Where is your audience? Will they be in a board room? Are they at home on the couch? Understand the channels that they are on, and design for those strengths and weaknesses. And hey, sometimes an audience might enjoy being treated like a member of the cast. Consider giving your audience a role to play other than passive consumer.

So, be a worldbuilder. Experiment and take chances with the stories you shape around the work you are doing. There are no rules and no constraints, so create your own guides as you go. It’s your world, after all.

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