Once upon a time, in a land far far away . . .
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine as "Storytelling, the vital part of the design process" and expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of the art of storytelling within a design process. This extended version goes further to discuss the importance of presenting a story verbally as well as visually.
Let me tell you a story. . . Don’t worry i’m not going to start recounting a nursery rhyme or retell you of a time when something happened to me when I was young. I want to talk about storytelling, or more specifically the art of storytelling a design concept.
For as long as I have been interested in art and design, I have been subject to storytelling. From historical paintings depicting epic scenes, to sculptural buildings with monolithic scale, to a moulded embossed texture on a pair of trainers. The thread linking these all together is imagery and how it is presented to excite the viewer.
This principle is used so prevalently by modern sportswear companies, that in some cases the story is created before the product even exists. Thus starts the argument (*cough*) discussion about what is more important to the success of a product? The marketing concept and how it connects to the customer, or the design concept itself. In fact I think the reality is that you need a combination of the two to give a product the optimal chance of success.
Yin or Yang approach
There are some brands who will start from the marketing side and build a brief to fit accordingly. The idea of building products in this way is to find the “hook” based on global trends and create products directly in-line with the chosen path. For larger companies this offers a more secure way to determine the outcome of the product, and help keep it within the boundaries of marketing and brand direction. A designer’s choices are often more controlled through this approach, as they are working as part of a larger direction or concept.
Alternatively, there are brands who will create briefs through identify opportunities in the market, through product type or technologies, and then build a brief out from there. This approach offers a greater flexibility in building products from the raw ingredients, where the designer is responsible for driving the concept forward through to the marketing team. This concept is then pulled together with the help of marketing to create the campaign and marketing material to promote the final product.
Neither of these approach are right or wrong, in fact they are both incredibly effective. The important information to take out of this exercise is that they both need to carry key ideas and concepts from conception all the way through to the communication to the customer. In essence they need a story.
Are you sitting comfortably?
There are many reasons why telling a story can benefit the creation and selling of a product, but one of the main advantages is that stories create images in the mind, making connections and reasons for people to be able to visualise the product and themselves using the product.
Sometimes the story you want to create is one of personal connection (we built this product just for you) or maybe it is more of a story of mood and nostalgia (we have the same values, you are one of us). In the design and development period, creating and maintaining those connections is vital to enabling all parties involved in the project to fully understand and connect.
There are lots of people in creative companies who are not “visual” people, so finding ways to explain what is going to be created is really important. Always try to think about the concept from a non design standpoint, where knowledge of the materials, constructions and aesthetics will be limited.
Spinning a yarn
So the important thing to remember as a designer is that when creating a concept or story, just keep it simple. Try to keep the one or two main communication threads clear and at the forefront of what you want to say. A story does not need to be an epic yarn or a bible of information, it should be a poem or a song, where repetition and clever linking can subtly (or not) reinforce for greater impact.
Story telling often starts with visual imagery or mood boards. Mood boards are essentially a selection of curated images selected to represent certain aspects of the concept. From colour and texture all the way through to silhouette and details, a mood board is incredibly powerful in conveying the message, theme or story to the wider audience.
Often this is as far as a the story telling goes a lot of the time, but why stop there. Building on a story thread and highlighting this throughout a process will not only help maintain focus on the concept direction, but also seed confidence throughout the team and further into other departments, leading to an easier and well focused selling in of the product.
So, next time you look to design anything new, check your reasoning, find your through line and build your story. You will find that researching, designing, and more importantly, explaining the concept will be both easier and more effective.
Singing from the same hymn sheet
So once you have your story you then need to tell it. As in the above sections this is normally done through boards and imagery, but sometimes there is a need to verbally present the story. Often this situation occurs at the beginning of the design process, to your peers, or at the end of the development and sampling process, to a sales team or management.
The former situation is often conversational and discussion orientated, so is generally easier to do. But the later is often a cause for nervousness and reticence on the part of a designer. But why is this the case? Surely the best person to present the story or concept should be the person who created it and ushered it into existence!
If you think of a designer as a bit like a chef in a restaurant then you start to get a good idea of the mindset of a designer. The chef takes the ingredients, combines them together with skill and technique and then places the finished article on a hotplate. What they then don’t do is walk around the other side of the hotplate, pick up the plate and carry it out into the restaurant and present it to the customer.
Despite this analogy, It is generally the practice for designers to present stories or concepts on some level. Whether it’s on to another internal team or externally I generally think the designer is best placed to present the story. This is because the passion and connection you can get from a designer is worth it’s weight in gold . . . but not without some help, training and guidance.
Talk the talk AND walk the walk
So as a designer if you are asked to present your work, don’t panic and recoil, just be proud to know that you will get to tell your story. The act of presenting can be overwhelming, and there is no easy fix to make designers fantastic at presenting, but with practice and planning it will become easier.
In some larger companies designers are sent on storytelling courses. This seems like a strange thing to do, but with the reliance on a designer to be the communication tool within a large and extensive process, it often means that they will be pushed to perform. Therefore doesn’t it make sense to give them some help to develop this kind of skill, as most designers are not overly comfortable with large scale or important presentations.
These types of courses offer lots of guidance, but always the main reason is to help give confidence to a set of people who are normally focused on the more “personal” side of the business. Also due to the nature of a designers thought process, a designer may focus on certain “creative” aspects over maybe some more business or technical information, so these courses help designers structure presentations for a wider and “less creative” audience.
Ultimately, it’s just important to make sure the essence of a story doesn’t get lost at the crucial time. So spending time to build presentations with the correct focus can only work if the presenter is both comfortable with the presentation information and has had time to practice speaking.
For more on storytelling, presenting and making sure your story sings, contact Jonn at firstname.lastname@example.org