Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.


How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.


So how does it relate to development and design? Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.


Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.


There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.


Poetry, Semiotics and Brand Building

Though the custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, I was part of perhaps a last generation to have to go through the process.  And I will no doubt remember the following lines until my last breath:

‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

At the time, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a copy writer or a designer, can indeed learn a great deal from poetry. It is, sadly, a forgotten but powerful medium. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, so to speak, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted and analyzed in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words along the horizontal axis (the syntagmatic axis or the axis of combination).

There are four structures that make up the horizontal axis of significations:

  • Linguistic
  • Stylistic
  • Thematic
  • Lexical.

This structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semes (minimal units of meaning, or semantic features). For example, the word “monster” contains the semes: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These are the semes in the poem that are used in the process of accumulation.

This process occurs when the reader encounters a series of words that are related through an element of meaning that links them together, that is, a shared seme. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented seme and cancelling out the semes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared seme is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined seme will be /beauty/. In this way, the semes take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

In other words, a descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent.

The system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. Whether we are crafting a series of words in an add campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

Too Much Choice?

The other day I was asked by a colleague to name one fact about shopper behavior that most retailers are surprised to learn. Something that has emerged over the last 14 years of work, but particularly since the rise of the mobile device.  While there are a number of them, one that immediately came to mind was the obsession retailers have with choice.  Why? Because the addition of mobile adds to an already overwhelming experience and too much choice can actually work against you. People are much less interested in ridiculous numbers of product choices than they say. Our obsession with choice is a cultural construct – we’re trained to say it but the fact is that we don’t necessarily want it. At least not in every environment. Indeed, design (good design, at least) is about limiting choice and directing people to take certain actions.  You can’t make good choices if you are overwhelmed and confused. The natural response is to flee or fight.  So streamlining inventory or improving flow can completely alter how a retail space is used and understood.  As an example, the layout of IKEA seems like it would lead to cognitive overload, but it doesn’t because it designed like a Bazaar – IKEA directs shoppers through a series of visual vignettes, metaphorical “stalls,” similar to what we expect to see in an archetypal Bazaar. Consequently, shoppers are able to cope with the number of choices, to segment, categorize and compartmentalize them.  Most mass retailers simply bombard shoppers with products and signs screaming “Buy this!” The product display without a storyline attached coupled with the sheer number of options is bewildering. In-store signage that is simply loud doesn’t covert shoppers to buyers, it’s just loud.  It is the Fox News in retail design.

Shopping is increasingly an entertainment experience, a teaching experience and a means of expressing identity publicly.  As such, it is something of a three-dimensional media channel which integrates elements of digital, spatial and information design into a multi-sensory experience. So, what was once simply a matter of product overload now has the added distractions of an increasingly mobile world.  In other words, while there was always noise, the noise is significantly greater than it ever has been.  People have limits to what they can process, whether on the retail floor or elsewhere.  Simply throwing out more options in the hope it will spur purchases won’t work.  It will, in fact, work against you. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate. Choice is, of course, always an element but overload is a risk retailers can’t afford.

So what does it mean for the future of retail? I think we’re going to see a  return to unique goods and the stories wrapped around them. There will always be a place for the retailer with massive selection and 100,000 square feet of floor space, but they will have to put more thought into the experience. They will need to treat their stores as destinations.  For smaller venues, the nature of the brick and mortar experience will become akin to a stage, a place to entice, enthrall and engage. Products and spaces that have subtle differences and convey human ownership or production is going to replace sterile, institutional settings. People are looking to be part of the storyline. Brands and retail settings that humanize their offerings are going to become fixtures for people and for communities.