The Importance of Storytelling in Design

Grey-scale image showing 5 stacked books against a briht blue background.

The ability to construct and share stories is one of those things that make us humans, well, human. Storytelling is an innate characteristic we all share. Long before stories were first written down, people passed down oral narratives from generation to generation or used art to communicate visually. Rock art is one of the oldest material forms of human storytelling and dates back over 30,000 years, but it wasn’t until relatively recently in human history (circa 1200 B.C), that what is believed to be the first written story — the Epic of Gilgamesh, was carved into stone tablets in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and began to spread to parts of Europe and Asia. Most recently, we have exploited new forms of storytelling media such as film, video, photography and digital technology in ways that enable us to not only document what is currently happening and what has previously happened but also speculate on what could happen in the future.

As children, we grow up surrounded by stories, but as adults, we can perhaps often forget how useful they can be above the entertainment value we derive from Hollywood blockbusters or the latest paperback fiction. However, those things which make storytelling so useful to us growing up, also transcend into the corporate world. In the 1950s, Madison Avenue advertising agencies began to see the power of leveraging the emotional effects of storytelling to propel consumerism by selling people the opportunity to buy into a dream. Advertising executives such as William Bernbach realised that you don’t always need a big narrative to tell a story. His famous Volkswagen ‘ Think Small’ and ‘ Lemon’ campaigns used a punchy slogan, basic imagery and some simple narrative to great effect. This form of advertising has proved so successful in the intervening decades it is still in use today. In politics, the slogan used by the BREXIT leave campaign, ‘take back control’ or that used by Donald Trump in his 2016 U.S Presidential campaign, ‘ Make America great again’, used an implied narrative to communicate a story of what might be, and regardless of our own individual political viewpoints, it’s hard to deny that as a method of evoking an emotional response, they were successful campaigns. In contrast, the 2016 Clinton campaign used over 80 slogans, which might well have made the campaign story somewhat less compelling to voters?

Storytelling offers a powerful means of building relationships by enabling us to communicate with one another, share points of view, and agree or disagree on a defined narrative. Our stories underpin our cultures, help us understand our place within the world, help us visualise where we want to be and help us to learn. Today, many organisations understand the power of storytelling, with most publishing some form of mission statement to convey their purpose and offer a story that both colleagues and customers can buy into. Within organisations, we might use storytelling for a variety of reasons, for example, as part of fostering a strong corporate culture, marketing products or services or as a catalyst for innovation and design activity. Narratives which seek to garner colleague and/or customer buy-in to the corporate mission might be aspirational, inspirational and optimistic in tone, whilst those which seek to advertise products or services might be more positive, glossy and corporate, and those which seek to provide a vision for service improvement or business transformation might be more provocative, honest, raw and real.

Whatever the desired outcome, the conscious act of storytelling within organisations is becoming increasingly important. In the social sector, Shujaazinc (formally Well Told Story) have successfully used storytelling as part of an innovative 360-degree cyclical engagement model with citizens — combining ethnography with storytelling, co-design and service prototyping in order to radically improve outcomes for young people in Africa. As human-centred design and design-thinking become more popular within organisations, so too has the development of storytelling as a way of moving beyond the numbers — bringing the wants, needs and emotions of real customers to life in order to help disconnected stakeholders foster empathy with end-users.

Stories offer a great way to move us beyond what the independent think tank, New Local, refers to as the ‘ evidence paradox ‘. Read any public or social sector corporate strategy and you’ll see that what is meaningful to those organisations today is often qualitative — articulating values based around building relationships or improving wellbeing. However, what is often required to inform a case for change within those same organisations is largely quantitative and focussed on measurable service outputs. Through storytelling, we have an opportunity to bridge the gap between the qualitative and the quantitative — mixing primary research with secondary datasets in order to form compelling narratives which help people understand the present whilst also providing a vision for the future.

As designers, when we talk about storytelling, what we are really talking about is the importance of being able to elicit emotion. Through storytelling tools such as speculative design, we can bring the future to life in order to create contextual experiences that people can touch, see and feel; ‘real’ experiences set against an informed political, economic, social, and technological backdrop. We might utilise visual artefacts to convey implied narratives designed to move people beyond what’s happening today by providing visions of potential futures, or design fiction narratives through which to speculate on possible future scenarios. My three short stories, sunk, trade-up, and a tale of prophet and loss use insight-driven fictional narratives to evoke an emotional response to a set of possible futures and act as catalysts for conversation around pressing global challenges such as our impact on the environment, health inequality and automation.

Whether the stories we share are in the form of sweeping tomes or simple narratives implied through punchy slogans or design fictions, storytelling undoubtedly has the power to stir emotions and speak to us all. The challenge for us designers working within organisations is to find new ways to engage with our customers in order to enable them to share their own stories more easily — identifying how we might leverage the rich insights contained within them to make positive adjustments to our policies and practices, including the services we offer — breaking the down the evidence paradox in the process.

Storytelling as part of the design process is about more than spinning a yarn, it’s about leveraging opportunities to make a real difference.

Originally published at http://simonpenny.wordpress.com on May 15, 2021.

Human-centred designer | Innovation @Citizen_Housing. Formerly led design @BromfordLab, Local Gov & NHS. Founder @CheekyGuerrilla & @GSJShrewsbury.