On Design as Narrative Promise

The real difference between thumbnails and break-up sex.


Most design—arguably all of it—isn’t created to be the actual or final experience. It is instead an experience designed to direct us to another experience yet to come. That website you worked on isn’t the end goal; it’s a gateway to another experience or product to be sold. That UX you are working on is not the final destination; it’s a platform to house many other different experiences. And that thumbnail isn’t what we came for; it’s simply one door that leads to yet another. That leads to another. And so on. We shouldn’t think about design as the final experience (death?) but instead design to create narrative promise; the beginning of story.

The permanent lack of an end-state is not a condition unique to design. All communication and arts can be viewed through the same lens. Bauhaus architecture isn’t just aesthetics but aims to promote the politics of breaking with elitist heritage of excess ornamentation. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm clearly cautions against totalitarianism. Documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me are made to have us take action after the screening.

No art worth talking about is just “pretty.” Because the artist, writer and designer does their art and craft for a reason. They have intent that extends well beyond the last page or the frame of the painting. Commercial artforms are even easier to deconstruct; they want us to buy something very tangible.

Your story began without you.

This distinction between “final experience” and “narrative promise” matters profoundly for how we set up the design brief. To create real promise we start a story that we want the audience to continue elsewhere. A promise that will tease, flirt and ask questions we want the audience to pursue. And for any promise to work, we need to signal to the audience that this promise is relevant. We need to provide context.

Context are the circumstances that give each part of the design both purpose and direction—what gives it forward momentum and starts the story. Questions—good and ambitious questions—are always more important than any answer to start story. Context to a large extent is provided by anything and everything that might have placed the work where we found it. It is all the assumptions we bring to the experience: Context is a platform where we communicate intent.

Narrative promise in practice.

There are of course many commercial art forms with a formalized narrative promise: dating sites, advertisement and retail packaging to mention just a few. If we look closer at one of the most loved and also highly formalized forms of promise found in film trailers, there are at least four common practices that are relevant for design-work as narrative promise:

1. Signaling genre: Film—like most artistic crafts—has loosely defined categories (drama, thriller, horror, documentaries etc). We signal choice of genre to borrow shared grammar from history to communicate our promise in a more efficient manner. This helps establish context. And depending on how closely we chose to follow the grammar of a genre—or how much we dare break with it—we signal style.

2. Signaling style: A distinct way of execution; the million of choices that make up style represent more than say a preference for color; it signals underlying values. Shared values and esthetics that we are drawn to signal relevancy. Style is never just about style. It helps establish context and sets the stage for our promise.

3. Showcase of craftsmanship: A well crafted trailer promises a well crafted film, sure. But this is worth mentioning only because we have grown accustomed to judging a film by a very different format: the trailer. Judging the book by its cover. This tells us that the experience doesn’t start or end with the film. In reality, the promise and thus the story starts with crafts and formats such as trailers and posters that are very different than the experience we are promoting.

4. The cliffhanger: A story starts when we want to know what will happen next, and ends when we don’t and consider the story complete, or simply lose interest. There is of course the literal cliff hanger. We want to see what happens next and thus have more incentive to see the film where we hope to find the answer. Then there is the implicit assumption that all parts of a story are relevant: if trailer shows poorly constructed crates with poisonous snakes put inside a submarine and the submarine captain spotting an incoming storm, we have a good idea of what mayhem will ensue; a promise and cliffhanger.

In a simple example such as a mundane product website for a new cellphone, the most rudimentary way to approach narrative promise is a shift away from images of people already happy with the phone and detailed specs. Instead we direct our attention to the context that incites curiosity and need; the problem that will make all that new shiny technology relevant, even desirable. Problems are often the right solution.

Some very dead Europeans would agree.

With these examples above, we see how the designed experience—based on the intent by the creator—always hope to lead us to another experience. We are always building promise, and the examples above framed as questions will likely serve most design brief very well. This is how we create the beginning of a story. Not the end of it.

The lack of theoretical finality is nothing unique to design or art. Continental Philosophy (Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) argued consistently—in a reaction to the strict analytical movement—that no experience or meaning is isolated or finite. Death, one might argue, is the only finite experience, only to have some German thinker note that not even death is finite or isolated, because we experience it as life in this very moment. And that perhaps leaves us with the only experience that per definition is designed to be finite: break-up-sex. And that is not what you are designing for.

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