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

Put a Stake In It: 5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories

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CarrieIn preparation for Halloween last week, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma.  In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things.  But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?

The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.

To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.”  You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.

1. Foreshadow Future Events.  Building tension starts shortly after your opening.  Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on.  The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image – in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror – that offers a clue about the events to come.  If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.

2. Subvert Expectations.  In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next.  Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building.  The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses.  The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt.  The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open.  Unexpected, right?  All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.

3. Add Comic Relief.  As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release.  The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle.  Consider the earlier example of the snake.  Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs.  The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake.   Entertaining, right?  Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.

4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements.  Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged.  Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”).  In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next.  The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener).  One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors.  A good analogy will do wonders.

5. End with the Unexpected.  In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story.  The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief.  At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor.  The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.

Pretty tense, right?

Theme Party: 3 Tricks to Staying on Theme

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Ok, I admit it: Mad Men is fun to watch.  Like most of America, I get a kick out of watching Don Draper and his crew toss aside rivals while seducing everyone in sight.  But Mad Men, which has won countless Emmy awards, clearly has something else going for it.  In each of the six seasons, creator Matthew Weiner has added dimension to the characters and taken the audience on a journey through the tumultuous world of the 1960s.  How does Weiner cover so much ground while remaining true to his characters?   

It all comes down to staying on theme.

As I’ve discussed on the blog before, a story’s theme tends to emerge after you’ve told it a number of times.  However, there are ways to shortcut the storytelling process.  To help you shape your own stories faster and make your themes more apparent, here are “3 Tricks to Staying On Theme.”  You may not come out looking like Don Draper, but you’ll at least be able to show the audience the meaning behind your own stories.

1.  Boil it down to a big idea .  The most basic definition of theme is “what the story is about”.  In other words, themes are big ideas that reference the transformation that the central character undergoes.  When thinking about themes in your own stories, look at who you were at the beginning of the story and who you are at the end.  Did you start off as a kid who used to get bullied and end up as a bully?  A class clown who ended up as the valedictorian?  One trick is to identify the transformation in one word  (i.e. Loss, Betrayal, Reinvention, Hope, Power, etc).  Simplifying the theme will help you stay focused.

2. Identify the emotional arc. Behind every big idea is a big emotion.  All stories, big and small, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy).  Use the emotional roller coaster of the story told to guide you to a new place.  Do you start out happy and end up despondent?  Do you start confused and wind up feeling confident?  Be clear and honest with yourself because this is the journey you’re going to take your audience on when you tell your story again.

3.  Edit.  Once you know the emotional punch of the story, make sure that each scene works in service of the big idea.  Every scene should reveal something new, so when editing it’s important to ask yourself two questions.  First, is this scene critical to understanding the character’s transformation?  Second, does the scene contain anything that doesn’t serve the theme?  If the answers are yes and no, then you’re ready to go.  Otherwise, re-examine and rework.  

Feeling more like a Mad Man now?

Image courtesy of AMC

Good Story, Anyone? 3 Rules to Make Your Presentations More Relatable

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Ben Stein

When I was a senior in college, I gave a presentation on a term paper I’d written.  The professor called me up and I started gushing about my findings, moving from slide to slide and furiously writing notes on the blackboard.  After ten minutes, I was out of breath. I put down the chalk, smiled, and looked out at the class.

“Any questions?” I said.

One student in the back was doodling in his notebook. A student in the middle was tracing his hand.  Another student was completely asleep.

The professor smiled and told me that I did a good job, but as soon as I sat down I felt like Ben Stein in the clip below.

Has this ever happened to you?  If so, it’s time to make your presentation more relatable.

Here are three rules to follow to make your stories and presentations more enjoyable and personal.   I can’t guarantee that people won’t fall asleep, but at least they won’t do it because of you.

1.  Edit.  Cut out useless adjectives, complicated nouns and superfluous explanations.  Your audience is smart, so treat them with the respect and intelligence they deserve. They’ll do the same for you in return.

2.  Have a Destination.  All good stories and presentations need a destination.  If it seems like you don’t know where you’re going, people will lose interest.

3.  Know Your Audience. If your audience is expecting a talk about politics and you tell them about how you hate golf, people will be confused and upset.  Unless, of course your story is about playing golf with a politician.  Be a savvy presenter.

Follow these simple rules and you’ll never have to ask, “Anyone, Anyone?” again.*

 

*Unless you’re doing a Ben Stein impression.  In that case, go crazy with it.

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?