What’s Storytelling Got to Do with Design?


I just got back from Disneyland and have been thinking about how it ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to the ultimate experience- memorable- check;  dynamically personal – check; engages all the senses- check.   But at its core are the stories – authentic, full of emotion, passionate , and transformative.

What strikes me the most is not the stories themselves,  but how much design is like the story. Our clients want to feel a connection to  and trust us. Beautiful interiors are the result of designers who love what they do. ( “Passion,” writes Patrick Hanlon,” is the finest form of selling and creates terrific narrative.” ) Ultimately, we all strive for the spaces we create  to be transformative, to overcome the challenge or problem put before us by our clients.

So it seemed like karma when I came across the following piece I have been saving- it says it best. (Originally written for graphic designers I took a bit of creative license.)

I once saw a video that made a good point of the difference between our modern understanding of God and the understanding of the ancient Hebrews. To the modern mind, God is perceived in bullet-point terms: God is almighty, or God is omnipotent. But to the Hebrews, God was a rock, or God was my shepherd, or God was living water. The difference is not small.

The modern mind thinks in terms of data: “The storm was third wettest in 1996.” But the ancient mind thought in terms of story: “I will send you rain in its season.”

Larry King once asked Ed Bradley if he could explain the longevity of CBS’ 60 Minutes, the most successful program in television history. Mr. Bradley replied that it was because founder Don Hewitt’s guiding directive had been, “Tell me a story.” So storytelling (Once upon a time . . .), not reporting (Heat wave claims six), is what 60 Minutes has always done.

A novel is nothing but story.

A movie is nothing but story, either. And to see it, we spend millions.

One gets the impression watching the news that data is what matters (Rogers’ QB rating is 129). But data is mainly for statisticians, and not real. Story is how human beings actually experience life.

And what is a story? It’s a life lived. Story is about risk and hope and fear and struggle and love and loss. It’s about heart and soul and the real reasons behind things.

What’s all this have to do with design?


As a designer, what are you doing on your sheet of paper or in your room? Why are you involved? What’s your role?

You may say that you want your room/window/product/idea to “look good.” And, of course, looking good is preferable to looking bad. But what do you actually mean?

What you should mean is that there’s a story to be told, and that your part is its visual expression. “Looking good” says blue and green go well together. The story is in what blue and green together say.

In evaluating your design, before asking, “Does it look good?” ask, “What story is it telling?”

Design — visual expressiveness — is not something plotted on a chart, measured, compiled, compared. It is, rather, the face of life, a window to the soul beneath.


This article was originally published in Before & After issue 36, page 16.



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