Demystifying Storytelling and Design
Cut Through the Buzzwords

Everyone loves a good story. Good stories draw us in, hold our attention, and can be a powerful way to change the way people think. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the design world has recently become enamored of framing design work as, “storytelling.” You’ll often hear, including on this site, people talk about, “the story a design tells,” or, “the story behind a brand.” These aren’t necessarily inaccurate or intentional misdirection since design, at heart, is about communicating a message.

There are, however, always people who will try to latch on to any growing trend in order to capitalize on the buzz without staying true to the original substance. With the push to communicate the “story” behind each and every design, people are rightfully beginning to question whether the word is becoming overused and meaningless. Most notably, well respected designer Stefan Sagmeister recently opined that design and storytelling are not the same thing, and that designers are designers and should be proud of that. It’s worth watching his talk and considering the questions he raises, notably because figuring out not just how but why we do things a certain way inherently helps us do them better.

Sagmeister is well respected for a reason. We don’t think all designers are storytellers, nor are all storytellers designers. We also don’t think that you should work with someone because they’re a, “qualified storyteller.” That term without anything to back it up is meaningless.

Storytelling, for us, is an approach to problem solving. It’s an approach that’s comfortable for us because it’s where our backgrounds originally come from: degrees in both fiction and poetry. When I’m trying to make a point, I’m far more likely to present my evidence anecdotally rather than just spitting out a list of data points.

So given our comfort level solving problems with good stories, what exactly does “digital storytellers” mean to us?

1. We start with content. At the root of it all, if the story isn’t great, no amount of window dressing is going to make it interesting. You have to avoid the, “lipstick on a pig,” phenomenon, so getting the story right and designing to make it come alive is essential.

Don’t think you have an interesting story? You probably do and don’t even realize how many pieces of your story are compelling to other people. Part of our goal at Noble Narrative is to help you figure out what parts of your story will resonate with your users and consumers.

2. We think there’s no end to great stories. If you make your story the basis for your brand’s marketing efforts or your product, you can’t tell it once and be done with it. You have to acknowledge that your story grows and evolves every time you launch a new product or interact with a customer. This creates even more opportunities to connect with the people most interested in what you’re doing. There are any number of options to continuously tell your story in new and interesting ways, like content marketing, email marketing, or microsites.

3. We think ‘digital stories’ aren’t one dimensional. The digital age has made a relic of the idea that stories are only told by one person. The best products and brands make their users’ stories a part of the bigger picture. A great example of this is the way in which people used Twitter to collaborate and create incredible narratives in situations like the political unrest in the Middle East. There’s no requirement that stories be entirely linear, with a clear start and finish (post-modern literature certainly showed us that), and the internet has become a place where people can come together based solely on the stories they’re looking to tell. Embracing this idea leads to incredibly rich experiences.

There’s no one-size-fits-all design philosophy that’s perfect for every challenge or problem. We think looking for the story at the root of each challenge gives us the best idea of whether or not it’s a great project fit for us, and gives us a head start on solving the problem if it is. Get in touch and tell us your story, we’d love to hear it.

Header image from Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash

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