Thoughts on Stories

On Digital Storytelling

On Wednesday I had the chance to attend a talk by Joe Lambert at the Colorado History Museum. Joe is the Executive Director and founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling, where he works with my friend Daniel Weinshenker, who runs the Center’s Denver office. The CDS is a non-profit organization based in Berkeley that assists “people of all ages in using the tools of digital media to craft, record, share, and value the stories of individuals and communities, in ways that improve all our lives.”

The topic of Joe’s talk was some evolving ways to create stories of places, or ‘storymapping’, but in reality the talk was a wide ranging discussion of the value of personal stories in building more meaningful life experiences. As a starting place, Joe placed the contemporary story movement in context, as related to other ways of searching for authenticity in our lives. As an example, he mentioned the slow food movement. Joe mentioned that in contemporary society we don’t believe in the third-person, expository voice. It is too easy to lose the real in the commercial, and it’s hard to argue that society doesn’t do its best to promote the “commodification of cool.”

For instance, in their 2007 book, “Authenticity“, Gilmore and Pine argue that “the management of the customer perception of authenticity becomes the primary new source of competitive advantage – the new business imperative.” The subtitle of their book, “What Consumers Really Want”, and their argument for the management of ‘perception’, puts some perspective on their goals with this endeavor. Corporations may not be able to provide real authenticity, but they can provide the appearance of authenticity.

This is not to say that corporations shouldn’t address this issue; of course they should. Our consumer culture isn’t going away any time soon, and whatever companies can do to provide a richer experience associated with their products and services is vital and important. But what Joe is advocating is something more grassroots based or, as he calls it, “community-based creativity.” Joe’s goal is nothing less than using stories to help create a society of producers rather than consumers.

The CDS advocates and teaches a particular form of digital storytelling that encourages sharing (“listening leads to refinement”) and the development of very personal expressions of history and experience. In the CDS technique, a digital story most often ends up being a three to four minute presentation centered around a specific moment where the storytelling gained insight and meaning about their life, their family, their community. Although the tools are based on the latest computer tools, the approach is intentionally non-professional – Joe described the results as “halfway between powerpoint and film.” The core of the CDS training is not so much the technological components but in how to write and edit a story so that is pared down to its essence. The results are often remarkably powerful and emotional.

Of course, this approach is just one on a broad spectrum, from the audio stories recorded and presented by storycorps to the documentaries of Ken Burns and others. Blogs and online journals also provide a great opportunity for the expression of individual experience; one of my favorite story sites, called A mis 95 años (in Spanish), is told from the perspective of a (now 96 year-old) Gallega who reflects on spanish history and contemporary culture.

Storymapping is an extension of these approaches that makes use of emerging digital mapping technologies to find connections between story and place. For instance, the I-10 Witness Project combines google maps with embedded quicktime videos to offer stories of the history and reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Murmur is another example of combining story and place; started in Toronto, the team has placed “ears” around the city. When you see an ear (on a light post, for example), you can call a specific number and get a story about that very place on your cellphone. You hear a story of a place, but not just the official story. You experience the ghost of the place. I remember when this used to be…

All this is just the start; already we are seeing the opportunity to present stories in multiple delivery platforms, independent of how the information was recorded. It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller. And really, don’t we all have stories to tell?

The Use of Stories

In his talk, Joe outlined some of the uses for stories; I’ve expanded on a few of them here:

Personal expression
Of course, moving from consumer culture to producer culture requires that ‘this is the age when everone creates’. But there is a richness in the process of expression, and an increasing awareness of the value of each life, including my own and those around me.

Social change
The experience of listening and sharing leads, in my mind, to the broadening of understanding. Through this process we begin to understand at a concrete level the opportunity and importance of working toward social justice.

For students, the creation of a personal expression can lead to greater opportunities in the future, based on the combination of personal understanding and passion with real technical and communications skills.

For organizations, personal stories can offer a resource for explaining the value of your activities. It’s marketing beyond marketing, communicating at the individual level.

Community history
For cities interested in engaging the community in creating a sense of place, creating an environment conducive to cultural creatives, it is hard to imagine a better opportunity than the creation of stories. And this can be an opportunity to blend the ‘expert’ with the ‘amateur'; the official story is enhanced and extended by the voice of the individual.

Beyond these uses, I also find that stories have extensive value in the design process, to encourage innovation in product and service design. I use storytelling as a idea generation and refinement technique in conjunction with other qualitative (ethnographic) research, including interviews, journaling, and observation. The CDS is also working in the way, specifically working with nurses and patients to gain a better understanding of the health care experience.

International Day for Sharing Stories

Storytelling isn’t just something to be used. The truth is it’s how we connect, how we understand ourselves, our world, our experience. It’s fun, and it adds richness to our lives. We all tell stories, and the more we listen to the stories of others, the richer our experience and understanding.

In conjunction with the Museum of the Person (Museu da Pessoa) and Stories for Change, the Center for Digital Storytelling has announced that May 16 is international day for sharing life stories. Why May 16th? Well, it’s Studs Turkle’s birthday. Seems like a good enough reason to me.

animal cruelty and the food supply

There are a lot of reasons to eat less meat, including personal health, the impact on climate change, and other environmental impacts, including pesticides and waste in rivers and waste in the water table.

And then there’s the issue of factory farms in general, and the question of how to assure that giant meat producers follow standards of quality and ethics. Large corporations, with a focus on the bottom line, place tremendous pressure on their employees to engage in unsafe and unethical practices. These bring out other concerns, including broader health concerns and the treatment of animals.

Today, the USDA announced the recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced by Westlake/Hallmark, based on the evidence presented in the following video, produced by an undercover reporter for the Humane Society of the United States. Before you watch it, you should know this video is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a very long time.

In this facility, cattle who cannot stand on their own are lifted, rolled and speared by forklifts. Another has water shot into its nostrils to simulate drowning (cattle waterboarding, I suppose), and others are beaten in a routine and horrifying way. All in order to get sick cattle passed by the inspectors so they can be put into our food supply.

Unfortunately, most of the meat produced at this facility has already been eaten, and much of it (perhaps 37 million pounds) by children through school lunch programs. Two employees have been fired and charged with animal cruelty, but there are clearly deeply entrenched problems within this industry that aren’t addressed by punishing a couple of workers on the line. All in all, a deeply disturbing episode.

rethinking cultural heritage tourism

Promoting Heritage

I spent a couple of days last week attending the “Saving Places Conference” put on by the fine folks at Colorado Preservation. Colorado Preservation is recognized as one of the finest state organizations in the country focused on cultural heritage preservation. The Saving Places Conference is a great example of their excellent programs.

Part of the reason I was there was as a representative of The Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery, as Riverside was selected as one of Colorado’s most endangered places for 2008.

But I was also interested in the theme of this year’s conference, “Promoting Colorado’s Heritage”; I wanted to find out whether there are some innovative approaches to creating compelling cultural heritage experiences for the broader community, not just for those who are dedicated preservationists (the more extreme of which are sometimes referred to as hysterical preservationists).

It was great to see so many people dedicated to preservation in one place; I’m not sure how many people were there, but it had to be about 300 or so, ranging from homeowners to architects to developers to representatives of the forest service. The sessions ranged from very detailed descriptions of how to engage in preservation activities (apparently there is no way to preserve a wooden grave marker) to the history of urban renewal (at some point, historic preservation became a key identity factor that brought investment into cities in a way that urban renewal couldn’t).

There was also a lot of focus on the relationship between green design and historical preservation – several of the presenters quoted Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects as saying that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

The connections between green design and historical preservation pointed to one of the implicit themes of the conference – the importance of making connections. Historical preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s part of the fabric of our lives, adding richness and value without being a separate part of our experience. One of the keynote speakers at the conference, Daniel Jordan of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, said that preservationists are the “stewards of stories.” Yes, absolutely, but the stories of our lives are not one dimensional. We have to connect them to lived experience.

Why do you travel?

In general, people don’t like to be boxed in. History is boring, something you learn in school, heritage sounds boring, and culture sounds stuffy.

People travel for a wide variety of reasons, each tied to their own passions, to what they like to do. Some people like camping, hiking, and adventure. Some prefer the local beer, local food, or just hanging out with the locals.

And yet, when people travel travel, they regularly visit historic heritage and cultural sites. History adds the richness and texture to their travels. So, even though they don’t self-identify as historical travelers, in reality it’s an important part of the experience. In a sense, history, heritage, and culture are how we make the connection. It’s how we make the story make sense.

Making Connections

A couple of the presentations at the conference spoke to the importance of cross-pollinating heritage travel with other activities. For instance, on a panel on tourism in Southeastern Colorado a speaker mentioned the connection between natural and heritage travel – you can go birding on the plains (where you can see the lesser chicken and 400 other species of birds) while you are exploring the mountain branch of the Old Santa Fe Trail. Or, from a panel on ‘agri-tainment’ (now that’s a concept), Kelli Hepner talked about Delta County’s efforts to connect wine, orchards, the slow foods movement, and exploring the black canyon national monument.

All this is great, but what is difficult is communicating with individuals who don’t want to be boxed in based on my idea (or anyone’s idea) of what they should do. This is where I found people engaging in all sorts of clever technical tricks to find, rate, and ultimately decide on what to do when they travel.

There are some websites and applications that can help in this process. Yahoo Travel, Trip Advisor, Home and Abroad, and others attempt to bridge the gap between expert recommendations and personal preferences. To my mind, no one has done it in a truly effective way. It’s a challenging problem, but also a great opportunity. Ultimately, it could redefine the world of cultural heritage tourism.

The Old Cemetery is Dying

Riverside has been dying for a long time.

One of the first cemeteries in the american west designed as a park, with paths for carriages, and trees for shade, and roses, for a generation or so Riverside served as the resting place of the pillars of society, territorial governors and mayors and pioneers and publishers. It was filled with statuary and civil war heroes and abolitionists and shady characters and mothers who died in childbirth, and lots of children who died too young.

But it was downstream from the city, in an industrial area near the city of commerce, and it ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. Even before the Railway line came through, the wealthy had moved on to another part of town. Riverside was left to the working men and the working women, to immigrants and laborers and indigents.

And so there began a long, slow decline, the slow death of a place honoring the dead, exacerbated by the western thirst for water. It’s too far gone now, in many ways. Trees have died, and roses, and there will never again be kentucky blue grass between the graves. In the end, the old resting place will settle back into the dusty plains, as we’ll all settle into oblivion.

There is something profoundly human about the desire to immortalize ourselves with a mark in time. Perhaps it explains the creative impulse, the desire to say “I was here, now.” Or to commemorate a loved one with as generous a statement as you can afford.

In the early days of the american frontier, the cemetery was a primary form of expression, perhaps the only way for most people to say, I was here. I loved. I made my mark. And there is sadness in the realization that of all the monuments, each one for someone who lived and loved an died, so few stories survive.

There is an austere beauty to the prairie, and at Riverside it’s poignant given the location between the smelter and the refineries. It’s not a traditional beauty, not fecund and rich and fertile, but more elusive and fleeting and dry. Like the west, the prairie scene doesn’t give away it’s secrets. They are too valuable to waste on the unobservant.

Times change; the cemetery is no longer the tradition it once was. Burial is now the exception rather than the rule. Still, there’s something to looking to the past, something to gain from saving what’s left of this history.

For a while at least. Until oblivion.

Design Thinking in Higher Education


Over the past few years I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in the world of higher education, both as a consultant and an adjunct faculty member. It seems to me that the very institutions where students learn about the value of design thinking don’t internalize these ideas. Real opportunities for improved products and more effective communication are being missed.

This is not a situation that is unique to the educational system. In organizations that pay lip service to developing an innovative and entrepreneurial culture, the reality is that most have a long way to go to achieve the goal of encouraging real innovation among internal staff. Many organizations have hierarchical, decentralized, and consensus driven structures that lead to inefficiency based on “groupthink”, lack of individual accountability, and a ‘keep your head down and it won’t get shot off’ mentality.

This is particularly true in the realm of higher education; with hundreds of years of tradition, institutions tend to be risk-averse and slow to change. But there is increasing pressure upon colleges and universities to become more responsive and entrepreneurial in their approach to problem solving, both in terms of curriculum and operations. From a curriculum perspective, some organizations have addressed this directly; for instance, Stanford has created the, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, where they express their vision as follows:

We believe great innovators and leaders need to be great design thinkers.

The Stanford ‘design manifesto’ goes on to say the following:

We believe having designers in the mix is key to success in multidisciplinary collaboration and critical to uncovering unexplored areas of innovation. Designers provide a methodology that all parties can embrace and a design environment conducive to innovation. In our experience, design thinking is the glue that holds these kinds of communities together and makes them successful.

Stanford is not alone in embracing the value of design thinking; for instance, in a recent article in Business Week Online (“Bob Kerrey Gets Innovation Right At The New School And Parsons”, published March 18, 2007) Bruce Nussbaum says:

Design thinking is seen as the integrative solvent that brings together the programs through a powerful methodology that solves a myriad of problems. […] Kerrey, in particular, was right on. He is leading a major move to make The New School more innovative and to teach innovation throughout its programs.

Kerrey wants to implement design thinking not just within the curriculum but also throughout the institution. Opportunities for real innovation are available to those institutions that engage in design thinking; but most will have to work through some fairly substantial issues before they can take advantage of it. Designers, writers, and other creative team members working in these institutions should become the advocates for real change.

Internal Agency, Strategic Partner

Design teams are in a complicated position within universities; they not in a position to refuse projects, and even in a changing environment are still responsible for achieving revenue goals. The ability of design departments to advocate for new approaches is dampened by the need to constantly crank out large numbers of projects without having the opportunity to pick and choose.

Because of their historical role and the inherent complexities of running an internal design department, internal teams don’t get the respect that outside consultants receive (it’s an offshoot of the ‘you can’t get respect in your home town’ mentality).

This reality is not caused by lack of professionalism on the part of the internal team. In fact, to some extent the desire to placate a client, to ‘give them what they want’, can cause strains on relationships and the delivery of products that are less than satisfactory. In order to improve the standing of the group within the University, a new and less democratic (though no less professional) approach to project definition needs to be employed.

Step 1: Differentiate Between Projects

Internal agencies may not be able to refuse work from within their institution, but it is still important to identify the nature of the project and apply the appropriate resources to assure a successful completion. One way to differentiate between projects is to place them within a simple grid, where one axis identifies the value of the project (from ‘production’ to ‘strategic’), and the other outlines the timeline (from ‘normal’ to ‘urgent’).

Whenever possible, internal resources should be working on projects with strategic importance and normal timelines, as these projects generally provide the most value for the organization while increasing the resident intellectual capital. These types of projects also improve the morale of the team, as they are more interesting and less stressful than urgent production projects. The goal is to move toward engaging in more strategic projects, and then to apply the principles of design thinking to those projects.

Step 2: Apply “Design Thinking” to Strategic Projects

1. Employ User-Centered Design
Techniques such as Observation, Research, Personas, and Scenarios help to establish a shared understanding of the project vision and encourage both the clients and the design team to look at the design problem from a different perspective.

2. Collaborate Aggressively
While it is tempting to set up a perimeter around the internal team and ‘man the barricades’, this may in fact be counterproductive. Hierarchical approaches do not lend themselves to effective collaboration. It is more effective to offer a willingness to engage with projects that are strategic in nature without preconceptions, but with confidence that designers have an essential role to play in building the University of the future.

3. Prototype Relentlessly
Industrial Designer Ashe Birsal had a professor at Pratt who told her to “Mock it up before you fock it up.” Tim Brown of Ideo calls it the “Build to Think” mentality. In his book ‘Serious Play’, Michael Shrage calls it ‘Externalized Thought,’ and goes on to say:

“Mental models become tangible and actionable only in the prototypes that management champions… Models are not just tools for individual thought. They are inherently social media and mechanisms.”

Prototypes allow us to share our ideas in a concrete manner.

4. Tell Stories
Stories are how people connect. Strategic projects require narratives. Effective teams us multi-disciplinary, scenario-based stories that engage the client and disarm the arguments.

User-Centered approaches, collaborative teams, prototypes, and narrative combine to create a design approach that can allow internal design teams to change the nature of the game. By employing Design Thinking, you have the opportunity to invent the future.


The Stanford School of Design

Tim Brown of IDEO in Fast Company (June 2005)

Story-Centered Design

Nussbaum on Design (Bob Kerrey Gets…)

yes we can of the black eyed peas produced this music video with the help of numerous musicians and hollywood types. The celebrity component is a bit superfluous (I’m not sure what Scarlett Johanssen is doing in there), but all in all it’s pretty compelling.

Tomorrow, I will be caucusing for Barack Obama.