Storytelling helps designers and marketers create imagery, emotional resonance and a more complete understanding of events or systems through a natural interaction between themselves and an audience. Storytelling is an important skill in learning and sharing information and biologically hard wired into all of us as a uniquely human trait. Storytelling is the original method through which we have always passed information to one another and is a rich and satisfying way to share knowledge.
Storytelling as a tool for learning
The tradition of sharing stories is originally an oral and visual: Homer’s stories were only written down hundreds of years after they were first told and the oldest surviving paintings in Lascaux and other caves show the power of pictures to share important events). Textual stories in poems and novels came much later, as did movies, but follow the same tradition of engaging audiences so that they can experience emotionally and mentally the same events as the storyteller. In modern times this extends even to digital storytelling, using digital media, slide shows, educational software and any channel which enables sharing of a sequence of events in time.
There are certain key elements to good storytelling which any designer or marketer should know. Hollywood scriptwriters focus on purpose (why is this important?), plot (what happens) and payoff (what does it mean?) as the keys to developing successful movies. Designers and marketers should focus on six key elements to create great stories and engaging experiences for their audiences, users and customers.
- Create the right setting to orient the audience and give a sense of time and place to the story you wish to share.
- Develop characters which your audience can identify with and feel involved in, as they are the key to making the story relevant.
- Structure your plot to tie events in the story together as the channel through which the story can flow.
- Make yourself invisible and let the audience focus on the story alone – if you read a good book you will always forget where you are.
- Generate the right mood to support the emotional tone of the story with music, lighting and a sensory style which matches your goal.
- Use continuous movement to ensure that your storyline doesn’t stall and the sequence of events is clear, interesting and engaging.
The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Texas is a great example of how to do this (see Principles of Design for more details). The memorial lays out a series of milestone events with dates and places, talks about the great characters who made individual sacrifices towards the goal, presents events simply and in chronological order, has a minimal design and hidden structure, creates a mood with symmetric structure, mirrored surface and black granite materials, and uses the flow of water against gravity to suggest struggle.
Storytelling is the best way to engage your customers and users in your design, create an emotional connection and give a rich context for learning and appreciating your design. Great storytelling will help everyone experience and remember what you have to share in a more personal and relevant way, ensuring that it reaches the parts other designs cannot reach!
- If you would like to read more about storytelling, check out more articles here.
- If you would like to learn how to create great stories, check out our workshop here.
Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)
The Poetics by Aristotle in Classical Literary Criticism by D.A Russell & Michael Winterbottom (2008)
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1993)