How Designers Become Storytellers

Borrow Less from Shakespeare, More from The Great British Baking Show

Karen McClellan
Apr 23, 2019 · 5 min read

I’m a few months away from graduating from CMCI Studio, and I’ve been asking this same question of every working designer I meet: what skill has been most useful in your career?

There’s surprising consensus. I keep hearing the same advice:

Know how to tell a story.

They go on to explain that the ability to make other people understand, to make other people care, to make other people get behind an idea — this is the ultimate power of a good storyteller. Whether leading a meeting with a client, a boss, a group of devs, or your own team, if you can make sure they “get it,” your job just got a lot easier. You suddenly become more than just a designer. You become someone who can make shit happen.

Thanks to this great advice, I’ve been on a quest to understand exactly what good storytelling means when it comes to pitching design.

One thing I’ve quickly discovered: The narrative arc of a design pitch has more in common with The Great British Baking Show and less in common with Shakespeare.

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Let me explain. The traditional narrative arc follows a cast of characters through growing tension until the conflict climaxes and finally resolves. This linear arc can be applied to pitching design — “here’s a problem and here’s the solution” — but as an overarching framework for telling a design story, it misses the mark for 1 big reason. It keeps the focus on entertainment as the storyteller’s primary goal.

As designers, our main goal is not to entertain, it’s to convert our audience into true believers —believers in us, in the design process, in our solution, in our shared vision of success. Entertainment value can help us get there, but we need more than that. We need to get people invested in making the thing we’re talking about making.

And that’s why it’s more helpful to take cues from a reality show that’s expert at getting its audience to care so deeply about how wobbly the jello pudding is, rather than taking cues from Hamlet. (Sorry, Shakespeare.)

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Every episode of The Great British Baking Show (GBBS) follows the same formula, weaving together 3 important ingredients to get the audience invested: context, content, and criteria. Here’s a breakdown for what that means to us, as designers, pitching to our clients and bosses.

This is the orientation, where we learn the ground rules, set expectations, and inspire a shared vision. In GBBS, this is when we learn what the bakers must bake, how long they have to bake it, and what environmental factors are in play (it’s a hot day and the chocolate’s going to melt!).

This is your big chance to control the conversation by doing 3 things: frame the story, set expectations, and set boundaries. If you don’t intentionally do these 3 things, everyone in your audience will bring their own frame, expectations, and boundaries. And you’ll have as many different perspectives as people in the room. Do yourself a favor and think these through and be explicit about them.

  • Framing the story allows you to establish a narrative around the challenge and set a tone for the rest of the meeting. It allows you to answer the question, “What’s at stake?”
  • Setting expectations lets you set a common goal for the time spent together — What are you evaluating? What decisions do you have to make? What questions do you want to discuss?
  • Setting boundaries helps you keep the conversation from veering off into “I just don’t like the color blue” territory. You get to kindly tell your audience what is beyond the scope of the meeting.

It’s important to note that setting context is vital every single time you talk about your project, even if it’s just with your team and it’s your 37th stand-up. Just like tv shows subtly remind viewers where they left off after a commercial break, you need to reset context for your team every time you meet because context erodes. Give a quick reminder re: what you’re working on now and how it relates to the project’s main goals and priorities. This ensures everyone is tracking together and remembers how the pieces fit together.

This is the meat of the story. In GBBS, we learn about the recipes and ingredients being used, the contestants’ back stories, and the choices they each make as they bake their way through the challenge.

When discussing design solutions, ground the work in the context you’ve already spent time establishing. Make the case that it addresses the challenge, and explain why. Get really good at being clear about what you’re saying — what’s the problem and how does this design solve it? How are users supposed to feel? Communicate this arc clearly.

This is the crucial part where we learn how to be competitive. This is when we answer the questions, “How will we keep score?” and “How will we know if it works?” This is when we define success, which is *crucial* to getting people on board. Through context and content, you made your audience care, but they were still on the sidelines. This is where you let them into the game.

In GBBS, it’s important to note that judging criteria are often introduced early — early enough to let viewers gasp at baking errors in real time and watch with a more shrewd eye toward outcomes. Early enough to be invested before the climax of the episode.

That timing note is important to remember when telling a story about design — this 1–2–3 approach to storytelling (context–content–criteria) isn’t meant to be linear. It’s meant to represent 3 key ingredients that should be mixed and served according to the needs of the audience on the day you’re telling the story.

Helping stakeholders see what winning looks like early lets them get invested in the outcome while you talk through the content. And that’s what you want, after all.

So far, I don’t think that the context–content–criteria framework is incompatible with a traditional story arc. But I do think that any story arc I use should be subordinate to the framework, only useful insofar as it communicates one of the Cs to my audience.

Thanks to Jesse Weaver for spurring these ideas with one of his many helpful lectures.

I’d love to hear how other designers harness storytelling at work. Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter!

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters…

Karen McClellan

Written by

Product Designer, Reader, Writer

RE: Write

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters program at CU Boulder, dedicated to re:working, re:designing and re:imagining the world of design and technology.

Karen McClellan

Written by

Product Designer, Reader, Writer

RE: Write

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters program at CU Boulder, dedicated to re:working, re:designing and re:imagining the world of design and technology.

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