Story-Centered Design


The title of this article is Story-Centered Design, but what it really concerns is taking an integrated, holistic approach to developing solutions, especially in collaborative problem solving. It is a truism to say we’re working in an increasingly collaborative age, and it may be overstating the case somewhat (people have always worked collaboratively). What is true is that the partners in our collaboration have expanded to include not only designers and sponsoring organizations but also various audiences and potential audiences, and many of our tools are increasingly complex; by focusing on the human aspects of our work, we improve the value of what we create.

Design is a process of problem solving; addressing complex design issues requires the ability to understand the problem in as comprehensive a manner as possible in order to create the best possible solution. A story-centered approach, in conjunction with other user-centered design techniques (including research and prototyping), can help to create superior outcomes by encouraging a whole systems approach to understanding.

Stories are how people communicate; this is as true in design and business as in our personal lives. From developing the initial vision for a project through implementing the solution, any complex project requires consideration of numerous points of view. Ultimately, the best solution is the one that most elegantly and simply addresses the needs and desires of the various audiences, and narrative approaches provide an effective tool in helping to define, share, and develop that solution.

A story-based approach to design combines narrative techniques, modeling, and prototyping and applies them to business strategy, marketing, and innovation challenges. One advantage is that the approach does not require technical knowledge from team members, and all are encouraged to participate; it delivers rapid responses and focuses on behavioral needs and desires.

Project teams develop narratives for a number of reasons; stories help in defining a shared vision within the team, communicating that vision to stakeholders inside and outside the team, and testing and iterating the vision through the development process. Each project requires an individualized approach, but elements of storytelling are used regularly in a variety of projects, including product development, architecture, and interaction design.

More and more, our goal as designers is to provide the space where people can tell their own stories, or find elements of their own lives in the stories that we tell. Doing this validates and gives value to their lives.

Ultimately, the goal is to deliver value, and value is best understood in terms of individual experience.

What is a Story?

As used in the context of this discourse, the definition of a story may vary slightly from traditional concepts. Stories are made up of core elements, including plot, theme, character, and structure.

Plot is a vital element in many stories, perhaps even in most stories. When most people think of story, they think in terms of plot. An important consideration regarding storytelling in the art and design space is that plot often becomes a secondary or even tertiary consideration. It can be hard to figure out the point-to-point precisely because there are so many points of entry and exit, and so many different paths that can be traversed through the story, whatever it turns out to be. In these cases there are other elements intrinsic to the story that become of primary importance, including theme, structure, and character.

One way to think of this is that in the world of art and design, the plot is incomplete; it’s always a work in progress. The audience becomes a character in the story and is responsible for the way it works out over time. We need to think more of narrative architecture and less about point-to-point definition. Themes, structures, and characters are put in place and allowed to define some of the details; stories, when used in a forward-looking situation, like prototyping and modeling or even architecture, need to provide a framework where the visitor is engaged and encouraged to tell their own story. And that story becomes the starting point for future modification and revision.

Consider the structure of pop songs; the verses and choruses repeat and build on each other, but never close off the imagination of the listener. Or in games, where the player is the story – the variations repeat in thousands of different ways. In an article on game design Henry Jenkins of MIT speaks about the importance of spatial stories.

His point of reference in this is the work of Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1988), who wrote that all stories derive from a single source, which is the hero’s quest – stories developed in order to allow people to understand their landscape. Jenkins also quotes the urban planner Kevin Lynch from The Image of the City, where he says “a landscape whose every rock tells a story may make difficult the creation of fresh stories.”

Jenkins explores a gap between two camps of game theorists, the narratologists (exemplified by Brenda Laurel), and ludologists, such as Jasper Juul. Ludology is a neologism based on the Greek word “ludus” meaning ‘to play’. To risk oversimplification, the narratologists focus on the story while the ludologists believe it is the spontaneity of the game that is paramount. The ludologists raise a very good point; you don’t want to wait for a story from a ball before you catch it. Beyond this, there is always a risk when creating an interactive story of taking the reader out of the moment.

Games serve as an effective model for story in art and design because if a narrative architecture is to be successful in allowing the reader to become the author (or at least a co-author or agent), we have to create as much immediacy as possible. Language always mediates, and can often sit in the way of experience. This relates to Malcolm Gladwell’s conception, as he wrote in his book ‘Blink’, of rapid cognition, or as a friend of mine calls it, muscle memory. The challenge is to build a structure that encourages immediate, emotional engagement while still shaping the story.

Open-ended stories repeat, in a ritualistic fashion. Gertrude Stein said it isn’t a question of repetition, but insistence. She said that stories are “very like a frog hopping he cannot ever hop exactly the same distance or the same way of hopping at every hop. A bird’s singing is perhaps the nearest thing to repetition but it you listen they too vary their insistence.” Stories have annunciation, repetition, and revision. Sometime they become shared memes of our culture, other times they become nothing more than truisms, needing to be updated and revitalized in order to reconnect to our experience.

The designer Kathy McCoy talks about tribes, the groups to which we are identified or self-identify. A particular design can tell a very different story to a different group of individuals, depending on any number of factors ranging from language to cultural morays to behaviors. And that story may lead to other and unintended connections beyond those intended by the originator. Creating a framework in which this can be explored can add value to the product in unexpected ways.

Story in Art and Architecture

Sometimes a story is an arrangement of images, as Sergei Eisenstein discussed in his works on cinematic montage. In Battleship Potemkin he used over 1,300 separate cuts in creating the Odessa Steps sequence of the movie. The movie was built, in true Soviet collectivist style. The story is built through a series of individual images, with actors who weren’t really even actors, with revolutionary editing unlike anything done to that date, and very different from the plot-based development employed by D.W. Griffith and others in the American film industry.

When we build a story in design or art or architecture, we aren’t able to control the order in which these images come together for the viewer. The experience is one that builds over time, based on varying degrees of exposure, but what is ultimately created is a sort of narrative architecture rather than a plot. When Walter Gropius started the Bauhaus, he had an idea of a way of building that would break down the barriers between artists and craftsmen, but he didn’t know exactly what form this would take as he built his school and workshop.

Narrative in the visual arts is also something that has come back into style since the heyday of the abstract expressionists.Today, I don’t think many people would stand behind this quote from Clive Bell, which he wrote in support of the abstract expressionists non-objective paintings:

“The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, but it is always irrelevant. For to appreciate a work of art, we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs and ideas, no familiarity with its emotions.”

To me, the thought of appreciating a work of art without bringing my life into it reeks of a particular kind of fascism. Not that my experience, my story, is paramount, but it shouldn’t be discounted completely either. And even if I tried, I can’t believe it is possible or preferable, if only to gain some understanding from the otherness, the strangeness of the experience as different from mine.

One artist who suffered through being attacked, at times quite viciously, by the proponents of abstract expressionism was Ben Shahn. Shahn, who was one of the most successful muralists working in America during the great depression and went on to create a brilliant body of work, never gave up the use of narrative in his paintings, though over the course of his career he became less concerned with the political meaning inherent in his art and increasingly more concerned with the expressing the situation of the individual in art.

Shahn wrote a great book, collected from lectures he gave at Yale University in the 50s called “The Shape of Content”, where he made the following proposition: “form is the shape of content.” Or more specifically, “form is the visual shape of content.” There are stories, whether implicit or explicit, contained in every image, every sculpture, every building.

Contrast this with a statement by the great designer, Paul Rand, who said that “Art is primarily a question of form, not content.” Can we bring together these two, apparently contradictory, comments without lapsing into some form of cognitive dissonance? Or, is it as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”?

Why Use Story-Centered Design?

Here are some basic principles why story and narrative are worthwhile points of discussion for designers:

First, and at the very least, stories are effective tools for designers and artists as a descriptive tool used to place work in context and build an argument for its validity. This story can come from a variety of different angles; illustrating a backstory or historical perspective for instance, or a meta-story regarding social context, or it could tell the story of the vision of the artist or designer. These are pretty traditional uses of story. Also, stories can be used to expand on traditional tools in the designers toolkit by providing a collaborative team a shared vision to work for by defining goal and mission without overly restricting the approach to problem solving.

Second, there are a number of ways in which narrative approaches extend on and enhance the process of user-centered or participatory design. Over the past 15 or 20 years this has been a remarkably influential and well-documented movement (for instance, the work of Ideo). In my work with interaction design, I’ve been an avid adopter of many techniques brought forward by participatory design, including rapid prototyping and ethnographic research, and believe there is tremendous value in these approaches. Some techniques, for instance, scenario or experience modeling, are very closely related to storytelling, in that they create a model of how a particular person could (and hopefully would) interact with the system or object in the process of being designed.

And finally, there is an emerging opportunity to use storytelling techniques in the creation of new design solutions. The game design industry is beginning to explore some similar ideas, where game players can begin to move beyond agency (where the player’s impact is structured within a fairly limited range of options) to more focus on authorship, where the range of outcomes is much broader. The movement from agency to authorship rests on a continuum, and in the case of design process there is always going to be some sort of framework on which the story is based.

Storytelling is not the only approach to understanding or communicating design issues, but is one tool to be used in conjunction with others. In particular, Crafting stories, and particular types of stories, can help to expand our dialog regarding design issues, and help us to avoid some of the reductiveness that seems to fill much of the design space.

We live in a world where there is a tremendous amount of interconnectedness between various disciplines. Designers need to be aware of politics and business and cultures. Ultimately, it is a question of value, and values. More than ever, we need to be concerned with value of what we communicate to the individual and to the world in which we live. Design is problem solving, but the problem always comes in a context. As designers we need to work to see that the context is as comprehensive as possible; even when presented with a very specific issue, it is incumbent on us to connect to the larger framework of the world in which we live.

Story provides a structure through which multiple individuals can bring their own experiences and beliefs to bear on a shared experience, enhancing it and growing it over time. And in doing so build communities in ways that don’t oversimplify or reduce our experiences into a homogenized mediocrity. We are looking for excellence, and from all those engaged in the process, including designers, businesses and the public. Now is the age when everyone creates.

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