On the Narrative Structure of Creating Desire

Editor’s Note: In a recent interview with Steven Heller about her new book Design: The Invention of Desire, Jessica Helfand said, “Desire is a fundamental expression of humanity, along with so many other things we fail to identify as central to who we are, not what we buy.” Here, Johan Liedgren discusses how stories from literature and film can teach designers how to go about creating desire in the visual presentation of products.

creating desire

Making products and experiences look their best—or even better—is often part of a designer’s day-to-day work. In some shape or form, we help sell. We try to make others want something. Earnestly, we highlight benefits and the unique. But desire isn’t presented, it is created. It follows a narrative arc in the sprit of Faust—a three act story of foreplay and strategic withholding. Because we don’t want what we already have. What we really want is always just out of reach.

We can learn from literature and cinema how to play out love and physical attraction for dramatic effect. The guiding principle is the lack of immediate gratification. If new lovers got what they wanted at once, there would be no story to tell. Instead, the drama is all about one obstacle after another to lovers fully uniting. There is no story without conflict. The bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. Romeo and Juliet anyone? It doesn’t matter if the obstacles are external or deliberately created for effect. It’s all about withholding the full experience in new and creative ways. Desire is not the end of the journey, it is the journey. Anticipation is the goal of desire, not satiation.

There’s no story without conflict

The journey to create desire adheres to a familiar three act architecture: a first glance, the fantasy and the tease. All three deliberately leading up to fulfillment and the full experience of something earned. But there is more to the narrative of desire than putting a nail in the shoe make it “feel so good when we take them off.”

The journey is how we learn enough about the object to potentially acquire it. And the journey is how we keep our audience fully alert and engaged—not force-feeding information, but having our viewer ask for more at each turn. Desire doesn’t deliver. Desire promises. And when done right, the journey leading up to the full experience has provided the relevant information, context and narrative prelude: well crafted anticipation.

The films America Beauty and Romeo + Juliet are illustrative examples of how desire can be played out in three acts—narratively, as well as making good use of cinematic tactics: light, framing, blocking, lensing, score and camera movement.

creating desire 2click to enlarge

Act 1. First Glimpse: This is the hook in the water. Waking us up from the mundane and cutting though the noise. In films, this is the first look from way across the room, that moment when all suddenly stands still. The look we get is never generic. It is directly aimed at us. We are transfixed. But then, in the next instant it is gone, as suddenly as it appeared. We have seen what we desire, what we must have, only to have it taken away. And this leads to…

Act 2. Fantasy: At the heart of creative withholding is the strategic void that it leaves. Once we have been offered a fleeting glimpse in the first act, our minds start racing—playing out the fantasy of what the full experience might be in our own exaggerated, rose-colored projection. And make no mistake, your audience will always do a much better job of imagining for themselves what something might be, than you could ever concur up with a generic exposition no matter how detailed. But being left to our own fantasy is not likely to provide the information required to close the deal, and we must soon begin a more intimate dance and reveal in…

Act 3. The Tease: We have gotten a glimpse, and fantasized about what a closer encounter might be like. Now, we get introduced for the first time. But unlike the hands-on exploration, we still don’t have full access to explore freely. What we want here is a slow reveal—an intimate foreplay that raises the stakes for the full experience and makes it earned. This allows important imagery and information to be served up in a playful sequence designed to keep and deepen the audience’s interest. All this in stark contrast to most low rent shopping experiences, where presentation is eager, over lit and has the narrative depth and visual restraint of on-line pornography.

Visual presentation of products follow the same cinematic principles. At first, placed at a distance, obstructed but framed for focus—then quickly whisked away. Then, the dreamy—artful abstractions to tickle user fantasy and projection. And lastly, the tease: a first person perspective moving closer to what is desired—a playful reveal of the product held back by dancing shadows and happy foreplay.

Your last Amazon purchase

There are, of course, several follow-on narrative stages to all that is desired: what is eventually acquired and finally consumed. When played right, the story doesn’t stop once you hit “buy”. Waiting for delivery should be another strategic journey, another part of the narrative building anticipation. Think about your last purchase on Amazon: finding, exploring, ordering—then the shipping, unpacking and getting to know whatever you bought. It can be a joyful journey constantly refueling our desire. Or it can be a series of dead-end frustrations. The difference is narrative structure—providing context, sequence and meaning to what we still have not had a chance to fully enjoy.

The journey is the joy. Story is journey. Just like life. This is why narrative structures tend to be universally useful. When we know what we want, and when we understand the obstacles and commit to the journey, we feel a sense of purpose and direction. This is what story and narrative offers to the world: meaning. When we arrive at the destination, forward momentum is no longer needed. And purpose is lost. Remember the story of Faust: his deal with the devil gets him all that he wants… but only as long as he keeps wanting more. He lives a spectacular life, but inevitably when he is finally content—having found the true love of his life—his soul is ripped from his body.

Desire is anticipation

Long term research on what actually makes us happy (Harvard 2014, University of British Columbia, 2010), suggests happiness is an active, not a passive, process. Findings are very clear on the main point: what makes us happy is not getting what we want, but the anticipation of getting it. Desire is anticipation.

Simply put: we need story to live—it provides us with purpose and direction. When we conclude one story, we are ready to welcome the next. Our product has arrived. Now what? What can the packaging promise? What new journey can the product take us on? The principles are the same. It always starts with a promise of something wonderful—and us not getting it immediately. Creating desire through withholding. It’s all in how we set up context: the narrative foundation that creates meaningful experiences out of selected obstacles. This is the journey that we remember and love: the anticipation of what we desire. Not the physical product.

At the end of the day, our experiences will never be more than the narratives with which they come. And that is the story of desire.


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