Category Archives: storytelling

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.
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rejection letters, 1933-1937

page from a scrapbook of rejection letters of mary horlbeck

I added a new post to today that’s pretty fascinating. It includes a slideshow of rejection letters from a scrapbook that jhh and I found in our basement back when we lived at 29th and Wyandot here in Highland.

The author of the scrapbook was Mary E. Horlbeck, a writer who lived in Edgewater during the 1930s. Between 1933 and 1937 she created this book of 138 rejection letters she received from magazines and newspapers for short stories she had written. She did eventually publish some stories, but not until after this scrapbook was full. It’s a remarkable expression of the dedication of a writer to getting published during the great depression.

Scrapbooks provide a fascinating glimpse into the past; in fact, Jessica Helfand has published a book on the topic (Scrapbooks, published by Yale University Press). Although this scrapbook doesn’t have the design sensibility of some of those that Helfand includes in her book (Anne Sexton’s scrapbook, for instance) Mary Horlbeck’s scrapbook is still charming and insightful.

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.

Mile High Stories: The Italians of Denver

Mile High Stories is a project I’ve been working on with Daniel Weinshenker and Tim Roessler for a few years now. I just updated the Mile High Stories site, with a new wordpress format and youtube videos.

The new site includes ten new stories that were created for the “Italians of Denver” exhibit at the Colorado History Museum. The one I’m including here is one I worked on with Jess Girardi called “The Old Trombone”. Jess is a great guy who has been playing and teaching music in the Denver area for fifty years.

If you are interested in the experience of Italian-Americans, check out the Italians of Denver archive. And, we’re always looking for other stories of and by people in the Denver area. If you’ve got any suggestions definitely let me know.

Design, Authenticity, Innovation

note: these thoughts are based on a presentation I made this past friday at the Image Space Object conference.

I’m interested in new forms of storytelling, and especially the use of storytelling in designing innovative products and services. I’m also interested in historical forms and variations of stories, and their value for people’s lives.

I love the story of the Pilgrim’s Progress, if only because it helps put our own lives in context. However complex and difficult our lives may be, and with all the challenges we face, it seems unlikely that our lives are more difficult than that of the medieval everyman.

If, as William Blake said in Proverbs of Hell, “Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius,” then our goal is to walk down the winding path without knowing all its twists and turns.

My own background is in performance and storytelling; I started working in interactive media in the early nineties. The addition of interactivity caused me to rethink the nature of telling stories; over time I came to believe that personal stories are the most vital and compelling, but as I began to consider interactivity I was thrown into a world where there was no longer control the way the story is experienced; how do we communicate themes and messages if there is no plot, no defined beginning, middle, and end?

One way to frame this new form of storytelling is to think of it as a conversation between the author and the audience; by its nature a conversation has a spontaneous and uncontrolled feel, and yet it can also be structured and composed. Conversations wander crooked roads, but they are informed by the needs and desires of the participants.

There is a natural tendency among creative people to believe that great work leaps fully formed into the world like Athena from the head of Zeus, but when we are creating complex projects that require interaction both between various team members and audiences, this is a risky proposition to say the least. This is another reason I prefer to frame the design process as a creative dialogue. In a dialogue we don’t know where the conversation will take us; the uncertainty of the end-result is part of the creative process.

The Design Imperative

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
~ Erich Fromm

Change is always tough. Facing the uncertain, considering the void, going to the dentist. And certainly our experience is that the pace of change is increasing. It’s not clear whether the stress of change on a personal level is greater than at times in the past, but clearly we are more directly connected to one another globally.

With climate change, globalization, social and political upheaval, and technological acceleration, the risk is that the gap will be filled with alienation, hopelessness, and reactionary nostalgia. The fact of the matter is that in the future we will all have to make due with less stuff. The potential for a bleak future is very real; the goal of voluntarily decreasing consumption and reducing our environmental impact can only be achieved if we are offered a corresponding richness of experience.

We will eventually have to engage in a revaluation of all values (as Nietzsche referred to it), and it will not be an easy sell. Changing consumer behavior will require real design innovation (as well as changes in our behavior as designers) from throughout the design disciplines. Through creativity, imagination, and innovation we have the opportunity and responsibility to model the future, to create the world that we will live in.

This all sounds very bleak and serious, but ultimately the imperative is to find opportunities for joy, humor and fun in our products, processes, and interactions. Not superficial pleasure based in the avoidance of the real, nor a “whistling past the graveyard” gallows humor, but authentic pleasure based in creativity and personal growth. And not just for us as designers, but also for our audience.

Our task is to engage our audience in an ongoing, iterative, and authentic dialogue. But let’s not take ourselves too seriously, or we risk missing out on the pleasure of honest work. To be true to ourselves, to be authentic, we should look around corners and find the unexpected surprises and delights that await us there.

The Search for Authenticity

“No authentic human life is possible without irony”
Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony (1840)

Lately, the term authenticity seems to be resurfacing in the lexicon of the business community. There’s a new book on the topic, and I’ve encountered it in some of the research and design work I’ve done with my clients. Its use can be problematic, and there is a tendency to be either too flip in throwing it around, or alternately dismissive of the value of its consideration.

When I was in college I read a lot of existential philosophy, and authenticity is a prominent term of study in that area.

By the way, I’m a strong believer in what Steve Martin once said: “If you’re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but with philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” So, if you are wise you won’t assume that my memories of philosophy are based in any reality.

But nonetheless, my understanding is that authenticity is closely aligned with courage and honesty in the face of outside forces; the authentic individual is one who does what is true and right and ethical despite the pressures put on us by society. It’s a simple idea, but one that is very difficult to put into practice; there are always competing exigencies in our work and lives, and the lines are not always clearly drawn. But the risks are also high, given the importance of the choices we make in our daily lives.

“We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile.” -George Orwell, c. 1949

I was recently sent an invitation to attend a conference conducted by James Gilmore and Joe Pine, who wrote ‘The Experience Economy’ several years ago. As part of the invitation they sent out the first chapter of their new book called “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want”. The conference is called ‘ThinkAbout’ and it’s taking place this year in Nashville. The logo is a great facsimile of letterpress printing, and is definitely an example of practicing what you preach. Hatch Show Print, eat your hearts out. You’ve been out authenticized by a couple of business consultants.

On the thinkabout website it says the following:

“We live in a world of increasingly staged experiences. Interactions with companies are more and more mediated by technology. The rise of postmodernism thought affects personal behavior while the psychology of aging Baby Boomers influences the consumption decisions of us all. And our confidence in our major social institutions had eroded, creating an ever-growing perception of how their practices run afoul of their purposes. Everywhere around us, we detect fakeness.”

I think I may be detecting just a tiny bit of fakeness right here. They even have a theme song called corporate renegade. I’ll do you a favor and not make you listen to it.

“To be blunt: business offerings must get real. When consumers want what’s real, the management of the customer perception of Authenticity becomes the primary source of competitive advantage – the new business imperative.”

I don’t mean to be too hard on these guys; perhaps they are on to something valuable. But they keep talking about managing the ‘customer perception of authenticity.’ Real authenticity is not about managing perception; it’s about engaging in the pursuit of real innovation.

“It doesn’t matter what the jargon says, so long as it is spoken in a voice that resonates properly.”-T.W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (1964)

Authenticity always runs the risk of waxing nostalgic, and the next thing you know you end up with House of Blues (or worse, the Taliban). Martin Heidegger, one of the philosophical cheerleaders of authenticity, spent the last years of his life advocating for a return to a pre-industrial agrarian worldview.

As a final note on this topic, I came across an idea attributed to Jean Baudrillard; the fake is charming, while the simulacrum is not. I have no problem with the honest fake; it’s the pretender, and especially the regressive nostalgic pretender, who offends my sensibility.

As multidisciplinary design teams, our goal should be to claim (or reclaim) authenticity as the purview of innovation. Innovation requires exploring outside of our personal habits and values, without taking ourselves too seriously. As we’ve seen, a little humor helps teams to explore enticing alternatives and engage their audience. Most important is flipping the approach around to explore it from the other’s point of view.

Out of Your Head Innovation

Maybe it’s paradoxical to advocate for the development of fictional models as a means to move toward real innovation. How is it possible that an approach based in the imagination, or more specifically encouraging shared imagination among collaborators, can offer real opportunities for innovation? I believe the value lies precisely in the need to consider the experience of the other, to be forced to get out of our own heads, our own habits, the rituals and beliefs that are so engrained in all of us. The purpose is not to negate or devalue our own experience, but rather to add richness, breadth, and depth to our own experience.

If authentic innovation requires us to get out of our own heads and engage the conversation from a different perspective, story-centered design techniques offer a rapid, iterative, and repeatable process for moving in that direction. To be clear, it is not exclusive or comprehensive in and of itself, but rather an approach that should be used in conjunction with other approaches.

For example, ethnographic and other human-centered research techniques garner real-world insights that are absolutely indispensable to understanding the subtleties and depth of human experience. Prototypes and models allow the iteration of concepts and ideas in increasing fidelity.

What’s in a Story?

In terms of their use in the design process, the definition of a story may vary slightly from traditional concepts, though the core elements remain basically the same; plot, theme, character, and structure. Traditionally stories have a narrative arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

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 designing innovation, 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.

In a sense, this type of design is really metadesign; we’re creating a design where the audience fills in the blanks. We want to create the opportunity for other uses, other stories, and other ideas. Ideas beyond those that we ourselves can imagine.

We live in a world of tremendous 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.

Words for Writers

I was talking to a couple of writer friends the other day, and they asked me about the value of blogging, and more specifically the value of blogging for writers. I mentioned that there had been an article on the subject on the visual thesaurus website.

It turns out that neither of my two writer friends had ever heard of the visual thesaurus. And that’s a shame. The visual thesaurus is one of the best websites in existence. It’s right up there with metacritic, which is high praise indeed. Though if you’re a writer, I’m not sure how valuable it is to know that Hot Fuzz got an 81 (personally, I thought it was pretty good but no “Shaun of the Dead”).

When thinkmap produced the first version of the visual thesaurus tool I thought it was cool, but a little toward the clever-but-not-so-useful end of the spectrum.

Since that time the site has expanded to include a rich and enjoyable set of regular features on writing, vocabulary, and the history of language. For instance, the word of the day theme for today is ‘big guns’, and the word is dreadnought. And there’s a great article in the language lounge on the be-words: Bewitched, Bedazzled, and Bewildered (and others).

Spalding Gray, still telling stories

I had the chance to work as stage manager for Spalding Gray for a summer when I was working with the Illusion Theater and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1985. He was the most compelling storyteller I ever had the privilege of listening to. At the time, he was performing about eight different monologues ranging from “Sex and Death to Age 16” to “Swimming to Cambodia.” 8 or 9 performances a week, I was mesmerized.

If you don’t know his story, Gray (who unfortunately passed away in 2004) was best known as a storyteller, but he had performed in happenings in the 1960’s, and also worked with the Wooster Group at the Performing Garage In New York. The Wooster Group is a theater troupe best known for incredibly complex and difficult performances, often with a hidden narrative.

I was struck the change he in his approach and by his commitment to communicating clearly what was in his mind. I think this is a profound and very important realization; no matter what media you work in, clarity of intent and purpose are key to the ability to communicate effectively.

Another insight from Gray’s work stems from the intensely personal nature of his stories; his performances were quirky, often meandering, and nothing if not true to his own personality. From my own experience, I have found that design and strategy get watered down when they lose their individuality. People respond to work that is authentic and based in personal experience.

Now the words of Spalding Gray are back on stage. Ben Brantley posted a glowing review in the New York Times. Five actors take on readings from his shows and journals. I won’t be in New York to see the show this time around. If you are, you should go.

North Denver Italian Culture

I just spent the weekend working with a group of Italians creating digital stories (through the Center for Digital Storytelling, about their lives in Denver and Colorado. It was amazing how many of the stories had Highland connections.

For instance, Duke’s story was all about Mount Carmel Church. He was baptised there, his sons were baptised there, his grandkids were baptised there, and he hopes his great-grandkids will be baptised there soon.

Louis Polidori, whose family still makes sausage near 33rd and Tejon, told the story of growing up during the depression behind the market at 34th and Shoshone (the market is now the home to our friends Jim and Michael). According to my buddy Michael Thornton, who grew up in the hood, Polidori sausage is the best in town (as a vegetarian I’ll just have to take his word for it). They are now being made by the fourth generation of the same family. check it out at:

There were stories of holiday meals on Shoshone street, with homemade wine for the adults and sprite for the kids, and memories of the grandparents house on Osage. And I got to help Jess Gerardi create his story. Jess plays the trombone, was the director of the Englewood Marching Band, and is the sixth director of the Denver Feast Band. The Denver Feast band has been around since 1895 and plays at the feast of St. Rocco and other events. It made me wish summer was here so I could go play bingo and gamble to win olive oil at the Mount Carmel fair.

It’s great to be in a place where there is so much history. What’s frightening is that so much of it is at risk of being lost.The Italian stories will be shown at the Colorado History Museum downtown starting in April. I know that many of the Highland stories have been recorded in oral histories and lots of photos have been scanned. But many more, even most, are bound to be lost.

Hopefully this group can serve as an opportunity to make sure we don’t forget.

Storytelling for Good Causes

Len Edgerly sent me a link to a podcast by Andy Goodman called Storytelling for Good Causes on the Social Innovation Conversations website. The presentation was given at Stanford University last fall to a group of social innovators over the age of 60. It runs about 45 minutes long, but is definitely worth a listen, especially if you work for any organization working for social change.

Andy offers a great overview of why stories are the way we understand ourselves and others; our history, identity, culture, and memory are all defined through narrative. He then relates Robert Reich’s four stories that define the american psyche: Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, Benevolent Community, and Rot at the Top. You can read them on Reich’s site in this article entitled The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative.

The presentation ends with a series of stories told by the attendees at the conference. As the old axiom goes, the proof is in the pudding. As Goodman says, we have to tell our stories to everyone who will listen. The powerful stories of individuals can help to change the world.