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

What A Character! 3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters

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Better Call Saul

As followers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show on AMC that wrapped its final season a few weeks ago.  But I’m not here to praise the expert storytelling (ten Emmy awards), the suspenseful scenes (too many to name) or even the superb direction (Vince Gilligan is among the best in the business).

I’m here to talk about Saul Goodman.

Saul, played by the multi-talented Bob Odenkirk, is one of the funniest and fully developed secondary characters on television.  After watching him for five seasons, I’ve fallen in love with Saul’s flagrant scheming and naked opportunism.  But what exactly makes Saul so memorable?

It all comes down to character choices.

To help you tell stories with characters as colorful and rich as Saul, here are “3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters.”  Follow these tips and you may have a spinoff show in your future.

1. Simplify Your Descriptions.  In real life, people are complex.  Unfortunately, when you tell a story, you only have a limited time to showcase secondary characters, so make your descriptions count.  To do this, simply answer the question:  Does the description paint a picture of the character for the audience? If the answer is no, make sure to add the necessary visuals to make the description pop out to a listener or reader.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies.  In some instances, it can difficult to reduce whole characters to simple descriptions.  This is where the right metaphor or analogy can help.  For example, maybe your brother-in-law is a police officer with a buzz cut who sings songs from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in public places (go with it).  One possible analogy is that your brother-in-law is like the child of Joe Friday and Lady Gaga.  Another possible metaphor is that he’s a mix of the Hardy Boys and Fallout Boy.  The key to finding the right metaphor or analogy for a character is to identify the unusual or prominent thing about the character and then offer a truthful comparison.   Even if the analogy doesn’t get a huge laugh, it will at least resonate with the audience.  Just remember: analogies should be used to augment descriptions, not to replace them.

3.  Serve The Plot.  Once you’ve boiled down your characterizations and/or added an analogy, the final step in the process is to make sure that your character descriptions serve the story’s plot.  For example, if you mention that your father used to shoot rabbits at the beginning of the story, the audience is expecting a reference to either guns or rabbits somewhere later in the story.  If you don’t deliver on this promise, they’ll begin to wonder why you chose the original description.  Once again, deliver what you promise!  The upside of doing this is that it’s also an easy way to inject humor into your stories.

Feeling better about your characters?

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