Is a Designer a Storyteller?

Last year renown Austrian graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister criticized he sees as a growing trend towards people referring to themselves as ‘storytellers’.

In the video, he says that storytelling is a fad in the design industry. Master storytellers such as novelists and blockbuster film-makers don’t call themselves storytellers. Yet, it is such a common occurrence in the design and UX field to meet people touting its benefits.

Warning: Please be aware that Stefan uses colorful language that may offend some.

You are not a storyteller

A subtle distinction

While not every designer is necessarily a storyteller, Stefan’s argument isn’t completely valid either. He isn’t against storytelling per se. He is against people calling themselves storytellers – a subtle distinction.

The reason for his comments could be the abuse of “storytelling” as a buzzword. A lot of education around storytelling focuses on telling the customer a brand’s story.

However, applying storytelling techniques for enhancing user experience has been an effective tool to developing products. The key differentiator being – storytelling is a technique used internally among the design team and collaborators.

This is not at all about applying the hero’s journey, a three act structure or trying to parallel some cryptic film-making technique to how we design websites. It’s more on the lines of yet another tool to converse about the experience we are building.

In her 2011 article, “Why we need storytellers at the heard of product development“, Sarah Doody flips the idea of storytelling on its head. She says:

The first goal of a product storyteller is to facilitate collaboration and co-creation.

Looking at storytelling as a technique for collaboration rather than sales gives it more depth and meaning. In that article, she explains how storytelling helps unify a product’s message and distinguish it in a crowded marketplace.

Naturally, the next question is how can one begin applying this technique in their daily work? What are the exact steps to follow in building digital products based around a story?

Begin with the problem

It’s common to hear people begin conversations about an app they are building. Apps, browser extensions, plugins and products, in general, are a means to an end. A piece in the bigger scheme of things. Storytelling helps set the focus around the experience of the customer and the problem that is being solved rather than the solution.

Identifying the actors

Any story has two major components – a plot and actors. Identifying the actors involves some amount of research. The more real the actors are, the better the story. The first step in building a story is to understand who the key actors are. Sketch out a broad category of people who might potentially be users. Based on this as a starting point, we will be able to perform some user research.

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Source: Sitepoint