On Storytelling and Design: Why So Much Design Is Clinically Psychotic

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by Johan Liedgren, Tale & Company

Design has gone soft on story with terms like experience-flow, signature-experiences and user-journey. We need a stronger definition of story that embraces conflict and the full narrative potential; a clear purpose and direction for the design. And in doing so, avoid user-experiences that act self-absorbed, detached and clinically crazy. Let’s look closer at story—how it creates coherence and meaning.

Narrative psychology approaches human disorders in terms of “the broken narrative of self”—when the story we depend on to make sense of ourselves and the world no longer holds together as one cohesive narrative. But not even well-crafted design automatically produces a true and meaningful narrative. Design and storytelling are two different disciplines. Good story provides the target conflict and framework for great design, offering each detail of the design a clear role in the solution.

The notion that it’s “just design”—and therefore liberated from grown-up responsibilities of purpose—should be offensive to anyone in the trade. Sure, we might be able to suffer through an insincere commercial, an encounter with a self-obsessed cash-machine, or tangle briefly with dumb-ass packaging. But a considerable amount of design in our lives isn’t leaving anytime soon. Interfaces require long term relationships. Both with the user and the brand. Without a conflict that we can believe in and share with our device, any potential relationship is doomed.

Design Psycho Sept 1 2015[1]-full

Seriously. There is no story without conflict.

There is no story without conflict

Why?” should be the first and most important question. Why?” is the real problem or conflict we set out to resolve with the design. And that is what creates story. There is no story without conflict. Better yet, the bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. The same is true for design. An ambitious conflict and story makes the good design-solution grand. Without a clear and targeted conflict, the design might be all dressed up, but will flail around with no real place to go.

A narrative approach to design promises both a meaningful end result as well as a flexible process for getting there. Not much design is done in a vacuum or created from scratch. Legacy is part of our reality; limited functionality, brand ambitions, technology constraints etc.—all pieces we are asked to fit together. But because a narrative approach focuses on crafting and re-authoring the problem, we are in control of the story. We are now in control of the design-brief and the context for how legacy elements come together.

For those who have been working long enough with technology-centered products, brands and clients, the real work is often to help an already existing solution find a problem. To give the new technology meaning; purpose and direction. And when we do it well, our work will result in very big problems that we know our design will be very good at handling. It is in the juxtaposition between the design that we deliver, and the problem we have created—the context for the design—that meaning and story happens. Narrative design takes the fatalistic out of client work.

Blond children and kittens farting rainbows

There are a few common reasons why design isn’t as anchored in a solid narrative as it should be. The obvious one is a blind trust that if we just do our best with each part of the design, it will all work out. The other—with a similar outcome in fractured narratives and several stories pulling in different directions—is design by committee. Many voices, no leadership. But the most ingrained obstacle is often anxiety around the very notion that there is any real problem in our commercially sterile universe. We want to be positive, we want cute blond children laughing and kittens farting rainbows. Offering large conflicts with archetypal potency can be a tough sell to that audience. And it threatens to take away from a cozy environment requiring no real decisions and offering unlimited avoidance of commitment. But the false safety of happy-puppy clients, independents or coworkers also begs the real question—if there is no problem, why do we need this project at all? Indeed. Why?

When narrative is absent, we leave it up to the user to create one. Humans are storytelling animals. We are unable to comprehend a world without narrative, without purpose and direction. Meaninglessness is more terrifying than any coherent evil. We give all things around us meaning. We create narratives. But because most technology-based interactions unfold with the user over time, any story that we are forced to create initially, will lack the benefit of the bigger and complete picture. So the story we were forced to create at the onset, will not support later experiences. The narrative will soon turn disjointed, with an interface acting clinically crazy.

The problem is the problem

Making all elements fit into a coherent story is never a mechanical process. It requires brave and creative leaps. No pre-fab story structures await on a shelf in some dark closet, ready to be pulled down at the beginning of a project and offer fill-in-the-blank solutions. Story—as is good design—is hard and real work. We cast and re-cast the questions and deconstruct the assignment to shape meaningful narratives. We change the sequencing of questions. We find brilliance hidden in juxtapositions. Storytellers working in unison with designers. Back and forth. And most importantly, together we search for the right conflict. We are only in charge of design if we play an active part in crafting the narrative.

Story is strategy for design—the full embrace of conflict and problem-creation. A powerpoint with color-preferences, uncontroversial soft-values and vague management-cliches from the 80’s, is not. Without good story, we are left with a product whose bright initial shine will quickly crack to reveal the psychopath underneath. Or as narrative psychology might suggest we look at it; “The design isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem.” The storyteller would agree.