Hero-Centered Design

How I use storytelling to design for heroic transformations.

Jamie Kwan
Feb 17, 2020 · 10 min read

If you’ve ever been to a theme park, you can relate to the following sentiment: they’re shockingly energizing, in some of the best ways possible — and you can’t help but feel an anticipation to return.

When I joined an architecture firm that specialized in the design of these theme parks, it changed my outlook on what ‘human-centered design’ really means.

Looking back after 5 years, I discovered that theme parks taught me more about design than any other experience. I truly believe that these lessons shifted how I now design everyday experiences that leave the end-user transformed through delight, drama, and joy. Let’s unpack that story.

In 2015, I became a “storyteller” for theme park attractions, shaping the creative direction of landscapes that placed visitors into a brand’s heart and soul.

I was thrown into designing everything from nature walks through a ‘Forbidden Forest’ filled with hidden unicorns and nature spirits, to missions on Mars in a sci-fi inspired VR gaming experience. I was lucky to be the one championing the visitor and the story throughout the process.

I discovered that theme parks existed in these truly designed “bubbles” of highly functional, immersive, and seamlessly consistent spaces — visitors stepped through those entry gates, and they’ve entered into a fully-realized story world that considered every point-of-view that could be occupied. We were designing ideal, miniature (and highly profitable) cities, where the story took precedence over any design discipline, and regardless of what you were creating, it connected back to an overarching world unfolding in front of you. Every single touch point was an opportunity to experience the heart of said story.

And, as a visitor, you weren’t just in the audience of this story. At every moment (booking your ticket online, in the queue waiting for hours, on the ride, and yes, even while eating lunch), you were living out a storybook; you were the storyteller, and most importantly, you were the hero of the story.

The moments were designed to make you feel something heightened — empowered, excited, intensely joyful. It was more than the baseline expectation. The designed environment and interactions simply became the backdrop that enabled and encouraged a heroic transformation through a heightened emotional journey. And that very approach, kept people coming back for more.

I absolutely loved that the end-user was measured in terms of their joy, their excitement, their fear (and overcoming of that fear), and ultimately, how this transformed them in the end. I realized, this feeling of transformation was something missing in our every-day world, filled with design priorities of achieving KPIs, conversions, and utilization rates.

Why can’t we shift this thinking?

How can we start to use the principles of storytelling, and transforming a hero through a user journey, in order to elevate our work as designers?

Enter what I like to call “hero-centered design”.

Today, I often describe what I learned from this most unique of jobs using this simple phrase. I like to think of this as bearing so many similarities of ‘human-centered design’, but with one key difference: a mindset of designing for heroic transformations.

Whether you’re a product designer, a service designer, or an architectural designer, here are six considerations when designing with a hero-centered mindset.

  1. The Hero’s Journey: Holistic Transformation
  2. The Sidekick: A Safety Net
  3. The Establishing Shot: Setting a Tone
  4. The Magic Circle: Inviting Agency
  5. The Defining Moment: Celebrating Progress
  6. The Surprise Twist: Keeping it Fresh

1. The Hero’s Journey: Holistic Transformation

Storytellers often use the archetypal Hero’s Journey as a framework for an adventure — storyboarding the key moments along the way. As a tool, the Hero’s Journey can be utilized to storyboard an experience: Who is our Hero? What is their clarion call-to-action? Their dramatic refusal to engage, and ultimate resolution? The challenge(s) they face along the way? The emotional transformation into a celebrated protagonist? The penultimate return (and the sequel story)?

I love to use this as a way of elevating the typical human-centered design process, and framing the “user journey map” in terms of the Hero’s Journey.

Identifying latent needs and problems to solve should be default by 2020 design standards. Seeing the output of our design as impacting human needs is pretty baseline. But what about this mindset for heroic transformation? How do we go beyond seamless experiences, and think about our heroes in terms of how we can help to make them their best selves through interacting with the design?

Moving image of Tan France of Queer Eye alongside two participants of the show, gesturing with a caption ‘We slayin’ it’.

For Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, their light-bulb moment for their mobile expansion was driven by thinking about Snow White. They hired a Pixar Animator to help storyboard the host process, guest process, and hiring process to discover that their service had little to do with a website or resource. It wasn’t just about creating cheaper, more accessible, and better located accommodation experiences. It was an overall experience that was transforming stressed travellers with piles of baggage into authentically-local explorers, unearthing the never-before-seen aspects of the world. It was an experience that made the host, a companion to the hero.

2. The Sidekick: A Companion Experience

Developing a clarion call for heroes is a daunting task only made easier by safety nets. Frodo had Sam to carry him and the ring’s burden across Middle Earth. Harry had Ron and Hermione, always grounded in family values and love facing against Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

A companion experience isn’t just about assistance as a function — it’s about release into a mindset of adventure, ready for anything. A roller coaster would surly not be fun as a single-person ride, screaming alongside you as you drop from the peak of that inversion coaster. In a retail store, how might a store associate focus less on pushing product, but actually solving the need you’ve come to resolve? For Airbnb, before you even get to your destination, you already have a trusted friend for recommendations to undiscovered territory.

Companions also start to form communities, allowing heroes to find their tribe.

Solo customer, sitting at a round table at Starbucks with a laptop and coffee by their side.
Solo customer, sitting at a round table at Starbucks with a laptop and coffee by their side.

At Starbucks stores, round tables are used as a mechanism to battle loneliness, and in a way, the furniture becomes a companion to the experience. Round tables don’t define the number of seats, welcoming single customers— and so an ambient feeling of belonging is embedded in the surroundings. Because in a Starbucks, you might be alone, but you’re not lonely with the other solo-experiencers.

3. The Establishing Shot: Setting a Tone

In film, the establishing shot sets the tone for the story that’s about to unfold. Often times, this is taken from a distance, expressing context beyond physical, spatial, or geographic setting; the design of these scenes reveals critical information about character and plot.

Establishing shot for the finale to the film, Skyfall. The classic Bond car sits in the foreground to a misty stone cottage.
Establishing shot for the finale to the film, Skyfall. The classic Bond car sits in the foreground to a misty stone cottage.

In theme parks, the view corridor on approach is one of the many critical considerations of the visitor experience. At Legoland, the gateway is often comprised of over-sized LEGO® bricks themselves, and hiding easter eggs that range from giant dragons to themed Miniland characters. This is more than just an expensive column that utilizes brand colours and assets. The madness contains these miniature moments to discover. It sets an explicit tone that imagination is about to be stretched and empowered in every aspect of the experience — a translation of LEGO® promise for the “Joy of Building, Pride of Creation”.

Entry and approach view of Legoland Hotel, located in Florida. A tall column built from giant Lego hides a dragon.
Entry and approach view of Legoland Hotel, located in Florida. A tall column built from giant Lego hides a dragon.

How do you want your end-user to feel, and how to you communicate a start of a transformation towards that feeling, at the very onset of the experience?

The Paper app, by FiftyThree, is brilliantly designed in it’s simplicity and prompt. The drawing app is an un-fussy way to quickly jot notes — and capture your thinking in fast and clear formats. The app’s icon: a simple, wide stroked squiggle with only primary colours. The interface, a blank page with five drawing modes. And driven by their original (and now discontinued) stylus, the Pencil: an equally rounded stylus shaped as if you drew a rudimentary pencil icon — immediately identifiable with their brand, setting the tone for a Crayon-like experience of broad stroke drawing and note taking.

4. The Magic Circle: A Powerful Prompt

In games, the “Magic Circle” is a term used to describe the boundary players step into where the rules of play are engaged. That might mean the bounds of a playground — where the rules of tag start to become law — or the simple virtual portal to the video gameplay space.

Design process — not just inviting people to the table, but giving them the appropriate agency and prompt to fully energize within the design process, and enrich the design itself. What are the “rules of play” (or lack of rules) as it pertains to the design process, and how do you unleash creativity through simply designing an appropriate brainstorming workshop? The format of engagement — where it’s not just about post-it notes on a wall — impacts how this magic circle is formed, and where creativity is prompted. In this case, the heroic transformation is not the end-user, but the design team itself.

The design of theme parks naturally levels the playing field, when it comes to bringing so many different disciplines to the table. No one is educated, or an expert, in theme parks — and it’s for this reason that theme park design transcends any discipline, to simply focus on driving and unfolding a story for the visitor.

5. The Defining Moment: Celebrating Progress

Simple ways to celebrate progress exist in digital and service-based designs across the world, in response to the use of gamification and game-based principles. However, given the saturation of rewards and loyalty experiences in everything from retail to entertainment to workplace, what else can be done to celebrate defining and transformative moments?

At Disney’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed land, the new lightsaber experience allows visitors to become Jedi themselves with a custom hand-built lightsaber of their own. Visitors choose their parts and unique gem to power their blade, culminating in a moment where everyone in the room — sat at a rounded table, almost in King Arthur fashion — raises their newly created lightsabers as they activate for the first time, in a pose of allegiance to this new Jedi induction. While a small moment in terms of time, this experience is significant in celebrating progress — its drama is so elevated, that it creates this highly empowered and memorable experience while forming an unprecedented visual experience of light and sound.

Skype also experienced a “defining moment” in their history, and used celebration as a factor to empower employees towards a mission-driven organization. During a slump, Skype’s leaders reminded employees of the emotional connection that their service has created in a very personal way — reminding designers and developers that the progress of their careers at Skype had impacted the reunion of two geographically separated people through their video calling service. With this, they weren’t designing an app anymore — they were designing a means of connecting a hero, with their loved one.

6. The Surprise Twist: Keeping it Fresh

Every memorable story has a surprise twist for the hero to navigate. A plot point that no one ever expected.

One of my favourite elements of the Disney Magic Band — Disney’s in-park RFID wristband that acts as your digital wallet, FastPass, and interactive touchpoint — is that it allows Disney performers to interact with guests on a highly personal level. Imagine a young visitor, saying hi to Cinderella for the first time and seeing her step from the screen and into the real world. Now, imagine that same visitor, seeing Cinderella again later that day, and being able to continue the same conversation. This interaction went from being acquaintances, to being true friends.

This ability to personalize experiences, and keep it fresh, allows for this repeatability factor. It makes experiences less transactional, and more meaningful and personal.

So where can you start, to design with a hero-centered mindset?

It all begins with starting with “why”. Not to rip that off of Simon Sinek, but it’s simply asking yourself why you’re designing what you’re designing — and how that ‘why’ progresses your hero’s journey.

Recently, I stumbled upon an ideation approach from Artefact, that nicely frames a conversation early on in the design process, around unintended and intended outcomes. They called it, “Is to… So that…”

It starts with evaluating your design purpose using this framework:

The purpose of [the design work that I am doing]
is to [the design goal that you are trying to achieve]
so that [the outcome that you want happens]
…so that [the impact you want to make more broadly].

They use Facebook as an example. In a re-design of the Newsfeed, you might see the exercise in two ways:

The purpose of redesigning the Facebook Newsfeed
is to make it more immersive and engaging,
so that people spend more time on the platform
…so that Facebook can collect user data and make more advertising money.

…or from a different angle:

The purpose of redesigning the Facebook Newsfeed
is to prioritize distinction of Newsfeed content
so that people can avoid unreliable news sources, and distinguish more personal content
…so that communities and society are well and factually-informed.

See how that second design outcome may be more linked to heroic transformation?

Since learning about these stories of design impact, I continue to strive to create meaning in my work. I mean, as designers, that’s really why we’re in this profession — as we shape small parts of this ever-changing world. I hope that this inspires you as much as it continues to do for me, as I work to uncover and create small moments of heroic transformation in my day-to-day life.


This is a space where my lingering thoughts on creativity…


This is a space where my lingering thoughts on creativity and design get to live and breathe, and finally get put to work.

Jamie Kwan

Written by

Experience Designer & Strategist || Formerly @Gensler_Designs @ForrecDesigns || Big believer in designing with #play 🚀💥


This is a space where my lingering thoughts on creativity and design get to live and breathe, and finally get put to work.