Design in Mind: 5 Steps for Telling A Design Story

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How to tell a great a design story

Over the last three years, I’ve worked with a number of designers who have great ideas, but struggle to get colleagues or potential backers to see the power of their vision.  So if you’re a designer, how do you talk about your work effectively without falling back on blueprints or drawings?

The answer, not surprisingly, is pretty straightforward: tell a story.

To help you share compelling design stories, here are “5 Steps for Telling a Design Story.”  Check out our handy infographic, follow these guidelines and you’ll have yet another tool for amazing potential clients or fellow designers.

 

1. Start with Your Values

As designers know, good design starts with values, or core principles.  The first step to articulating your values is to answer the question: What is the experience you want your end user to have of the product?  Are you trying to achieve efficiency of space or economy of motion?  Is the goal to save time or increase the number of clicks on a particular page?  Start with a big idea (i.e. efficiency) and then break it down into its component parts (look, feel, etc).  The clearer you are in answering these questions, the clearer you’ll be in articulating the overall journey, or experience, you’d like a potential reader, listener or user to have of your design.

2. Identify a Moment of Vulnerability

Since there are no shortage of vulnerabilities in the design world, this part is pretty easy.  The challenge here is to try to find a moment where the failure hit a nerve on a personal level.  To do this, identify a moment or experience in which the value you want your design to demonstrate (i.e. efficiency) was absent, and the impact that absence had on you.  For example, if the experience you want people to have is about spatial layout, think about a time when you were jammed against a wall and couldn’t escape, or a time you created a space that had that same effect on someone.

Once you pinpoint the moment, take time to highlight each of the design failings (be specific!), how you reacted (be honest!), and any feelings you experienced, either in the moment or afterwards (make it personal!).

3.  Demonstrate a Shift

After you’ve clearly identified a moment of vulnerability, outline how you responded.  What did you do? Did you have any conversations about this design failing? Again, be specific about these conversations and actions.  For example, after seeing a cabinet that was placed improperly, did you research and discover any trends in cabinet design?  Did you share your experiences with your team?  These moments and conversations will provide context for your listeners about both your solution and the design process.  Many designers gloss over important details out of fear of bogging the audience down, but a detailed description of your response will actually draw people in by making design comprehensible.  Again, be specific!

4. Present Your Solution

After you’ve created context for both the design vulnerability and outlined your response, walk the audience through your solution.  This doesn’t need to be a complex breakdown of the idea (unless you’re speaking to fellow designers who want to hear it), but it does need to address the vulnerability identified in part 2 and the shift in part 3.  Describe how the solution speaks to the initial problem and realizes the design value laid out in part 1.

5. End with a Call to Action

The final part of a good design story is to end with a compelling call to action. Your call to action should articulate what’s possible in this new, well-designed world.  If you’ve already implemented your design solution, tell people what happened afterwards.  Did the industry embrace your ideas?  Did anyone offer praise or feedback?  What became possible for users and designers in this new world?  Did your solution provide secondary benefits that you didn’t initially anticipante?

If you haven’t implemented the solution yet, get people excited about the future and you’ll be amazed at the response.

How’s that for a design hack?

How to tell a great a design story

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Second That Emotion: 3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories

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Second That Emotion

A few weeks ago, This American Life (TAL) broadcast an episode entitled “How I Got Into College”, which included a story told by a man in his 30’s about his early life.  In the story, a 13 year-old boy escapes from war-torn Bosnia, only to face violence and isolation at an inner city high school.  One day, the boy’s high school English teacher brings him to an exclusive private school and introduces him to an administrator.  The boy impresses the administrator, is accepted into the private high school, graduates from Harvard and later becomes a professor at the University of Chicago.

Moving story, right? The only problem: the story isn’t entirely true.

To be fair, everyone is guilty of a little exaggeration for dramatic effect.  That bully who beat you up in middle school probably wasn’t 6’7″ tall (unless the bully was Lebron James).  But This American Life’s “too good to be true” story got me thinking: How do you tell a story that’s both honest and heartfelt at the same time?

The answer is actually pretty simple: ground your story in emotion.

To help you tell true tales that will move an audience, here are “3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories.”  You’ll be amazed what happens.

1. Map Your Emotions.  The first step in telling a good, true tale is to identify how your emotions changed as the events in the story played out.  Did you start out feeling combative and end up feeling collaborative? Were you initially confused before you wound up feeling confident? One trick is to make an emotional flow chart to show your progression.  Your emotional journey will eventually be the journey you’re going to take your audience on, so be as specific as possible.

2.  Show Emotion Through Action.  Stories often fail because the emotional content doesn’t match the physical actions, so once you know the emotions at play, ground your story in what happened.  For example, instead of saying, “I was really sad,” tell us, “I got a text message in midtown and cried until snot was dripping onto the floor of the D train as it pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station.”  More interesting, right?  The more specific you are about what happened, the more emotional the experience becomes for the audience.

3.  Offer a Moment of Transformation.  Stories aren’t just a series of events – they’re journeys of personal transformation.  To leave your audience moved, all you need is to provide a final moment that shows how far you’ve come.  As I discussed in an earlier post on resolutions, the easiest way to do this is to return to the opening scene.  Maybe you were evicted from your apartment of thirty years after a long fight, only to find an apartment directly across the street?  Bring us full circle and we’ll see the impact directly.

Pretty moving, right?

Fail Safe: 3 Tricks for Telling Stories About Failure

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For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure.  Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*.  Or maybe you’re like David Brent from The Office (see above) and you’re a tone deaf dancer.  Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life. 

This past week, I read a wonderful article in the New Yorker by Walter Kirn about how he was duped by one of the most famous impostors of the 20th century.  The article is alternatively funny and heart breaking, but got me thinking: How does Kirn keep his readers rapt without launching into a tirade?

You’ll be happy to know: it all comes down to a few simple storytelling tricks.

To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, here are “3 Tricks for Telling Stories About Failure.”  Follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.

1.  Don’t pass judgment.  The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story.  The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible.  Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18 – 22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.  

2.  Avoid complex explanations.  If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens.  Don’t do this.  People love stories about a good flop (see my previous post), so don’t cheat them of the experience.  One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story.  Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important. 

3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions.  Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience.  Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling.  When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.  

It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process.  In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail Better.

*All of these things happened to me

That’s So Funny! 5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories

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Louis CK

I’m a huge fan of Louis C.K.  Louis is a masterful performer whose spot-on observations of the human condition and casually neurotic delivery have won him praise from comedians (Chris Rock is a big supporter), filmmakers (he’s won 3 Emmys) and fans.  But what’s his secret?

You guessed it: storytelling.

It took Louis over 25 years to perfect his jokes and stories, but it doesn’t need to be such a struggle for new storytellers.  Here are ‘5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories’ for anyone who wants to lighten the mood of their stories.  With enough practice with these techniques, you may even get your own HBO Special.

1.  Find the game.  The game is the fun or funny thing played as a pattern.  In storytelling and stand-up, the game presents itself as an unusual character trait that recurs throughout the story.  Did you wear the same “Black Sabbath” t-shirt to high school every day, even though your friends told you that it smelled?  Did your boss at Rolling Stone play Michael Bolton at his? The audience may not laugh the first time, but when you return to the game later, you’ll at least get a chuckle.

2.  Use dialogue.  It’s ok to paraphrase, but the best stories include dialogue.  Dialogue allows you to recreate the speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters in the story.  Maybe there’s a guy in the office who warbles when he talks or a waitress who has a high pitched voice. The better you can recreate characters in the story, the funnier and more relatable they become.

3. Obey the rule of 3’s.  Western audiences are accustomed to hearing funny things in a three-part pattern.  While most one-liners (jokes) have a two-part structure – set-up and punch line – you have more time in stories to set up something funny and return to it later.  Introduce the game, play it, then re-introduce it a third time.  You’ll blow your audience away and get a big laugh.

4.  Play to the top of your intelligence.  Don’t make jokes that infantilize your audience.  If something isn’t funny to you, it probably won’t win over your audience.  You may get a small guffaw, but it’ll end up being more distracting in the long run.  Be smart and play smart.

5.  Don’t force your jokes.  If a joke doesn’t land, move on.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the joke isn’t funny, it just means that this particular audience doesn’t find it funny.  Flopping is part of being a good storyteller, so don’t worry too much.   Everything in life that’s worthwhile takes practice, and you’ll eventually find the funny thing.  Just remember that it took Louis C.K. almost 30 years to kill in front of an audience, so be patient with you stories.

Feeling funnier already, right?