Storytelling for Designers

As a design educator I watch and read a lot of project presentations. I worked out the other day that I must have seen at least 2,000-3,000 student projects in my time. A key thing I have learned is that the telling of the project’s story, whether as a pitch, presentation or documentation, is as important as the project idea itself.

Coaching my students on the story of their presentations has become one of the key parts of my teaching. In our book on service design, we write about developing the service proposition and experience prototyping. As a set of testing criteria, we have a (mostly) hierarchical checklist of questions to keep in mind, the first and most important of which are:

  • Do people understand what the new service is or does?
  • Do people see the value of it in their life?
  • Do people understand how to use it?

This checklist works for almost any situation and project that you are trying to communicate to someone, be it a service, product, artwork, screenplay, policy, business proposal, relationship proposal and more. As someone who loves the idea of developing unified theories of everything, lists of principles like this appeal to me. Just replace the word service for whatever you are proposing. The underlying questions are:

  • What is this?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • How do they interact with it?

If you fail at an earlier step, it is very hard to be convincing at a later step. If people don’t understand what the product or service is, then it is impossible to convince people of its value and they are not even going to begin to bother to understand how to use it.

To take it back to relationships (and services are relationships), it’s like trying to convince someone to marry you without them even knowing what you look or sound like. It does happen, but shows like Blind Date are hilarious and cringeworthy because it usually does not. The Bachelor works by drawing these three principles out over a whole season:

  • Who is this girl?
  • What makes her special?
  • How does she act/do the couple interact in certain situations?

Most stories work the same way:

  • Who is the character, what is the setting?
  • What is of value and what is at stake and how does that create the dramatic conflict?
  • How does the character act in this situation?

Social networks mostly follows these principles too, but sometimes the value and how questions are switched, as anyone who has had to answer the “What is Twitter?” question will know.

Sometimes you have to start using something in order to discover its value. This can be a risky strategy. Some people won’t even bother to start interacting at all, because they do not understand what it is all about. I think the reason why this works with Twitter is because the learning curve of how to use it is so tiny: express something in 140 characters. The why of Twitter takes a little longer to discover.

Facebook is the opposite. The why is clear (at least it is if you are a teenager), but nobody knows how to manage their privacy and half a dozen other settings. Good luck with trying to find out how to permanently, properly delete your account too.

Storytelling is a design process

One of the reasons I coach my students about their project stories before their big presentations is because storytelling is an iterative design process that needs practice and it can easily go off the rails. We think we know our work so well and can just talk about it.

There is often the temptation to dive straight into the how it works part without any setting up of the context. This leaves the audience, including an external assessment jury, confused as to what they are looking at and why they should care. Sometimes, in earlier versions, the story of the project is pitched back-to-front or with sudden shifts in the narrative flow, leaving the audience to invent their own backstory. When the backstory is no longer controlled by the presenter, it allows room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. That can be a recipe for disaster or, at least, bad grades.

Stories of stories of stories of stories

There is an interesting, fractal process of storytelling and re-telling that happens during design projects too. Insights researchers go out and gather stories from stakeholders. Then they come back and tell those stories to the project team.

The design team work on their concepts, telling each other stories about their ideas and previous experiences. They then present their ideas as stories to the larger project team and these concepts are finally pitched to the client as scenario stories. The client pitches these stories internally along with their own additions and interpretations of the design team.

Once the product or service is brought to market (with many stages of storytelling in-between), a brand will tell the story of the company, product or service to potential customers through advertising and marketing.

Finally, the customers use the product or service and tell others stories of their experiences with it, because markets and brands are conversations. Now we have come full circle, because it is those conversations that insights researchers tap into in the first place.

What’s your story?

There is an adage in screenwriting that you should try and write the best movie you possibly can, because it will eventually be watered down into just an okay movie by the time so many people (read: stars and executive producers) have had their input. I think the same is true with design projects — it is crucial to get the story clear in your own head as a designer, or as a team, before it goes out into the world and mutates into something unrecognisable.

The very act of defining and refining that story — in screenwriting these are reduced down to log lines — is an act of design and helps the designer be clearer about what they want to achieve. By having a clear story, designers can also be more aware of when things are going off track. Log lines are not as easy to write as it looks when you read them. This example is the log line for the film Looper taken from The Blacklist:

“In the present day, a group of hitmen are sent their victims from the future.”

Boom. The whole film encapsulated in one line. You can be sure the writer started with a longer line than that or even several sentences before whittling it down. One you have this, you know what your project is about and it remains a guiding light. If you find yourself having to explain more details to just get the idea across, something has gone awry.

Stories are the foundation if culture and society and what make us human. Without then we would, like dogs, be sniffing each other’s bottoms to find out about what our friends and colleagues have been up to. I’m thankful that we have language. Make use of it.

Students, Ideas & Prototyping

Stickers on Boxes

While perusing Nicolas Nova’s post on Prototyping session with post-its and cardboard at EPFL I followed his link to Stickers on Boxes, a “prototyping tool for generating objects that communicate concepts quickly & simply,” created by Anvil. Looks like a great approach.

The other day Nicolas and I were both bemoaning the fact that our students take far too long to get to the idea and concept stage, doing lots of “thinking about the project” and then “research” (which is mainly Google and a handful of books). As the deadline approaches, suddenly all the real work is done and, of course, by then it is too late to make improvements and iterations. By contrast, when I run short three or five-day workshops, the concepts get developed really quickly – more than in several weeks of “normal” project time – but then there is no more time to polish them. It is, as Ben Pieratt notes, a creative process roughly like this:

Creative process

(Ben Pieratt’s model of the Creative Process, also via Nicolas’s Tumblelog)

I think we sell teach the design process wrong. By “we” I mean most design courses I’ve encountered. By necessity of slicing and dicing the curriculum into modules and weeks, we tend to present the process as a linear one. Do some thematic research, focus down, do the user/field/literature/market research, ideate, develop a concept, sketch, prototype, polish, evaluate (rarely makes it into the project because time has already run out), bask in the glory of what a great designer you are.

A combination of the two would be ideal. Some structure (the double diamond, for example) is okay, but something more with an iterative spiral character that expresses the simultaneous ideation-concept-making process that really happens. More back and forth from extremes, more agile, I suppose. The inputs and activities should be taught in parallel, which means restructuring the curriculum significantly and ditching a lot of what are considered correct or useful evaluation processes. (Personally, I’d always favour feedback over grades. Grades are completely useless assessment tools).

Coming up with concepts and ideas is really easy. It shouldn’t take weeks or months. Implementing ideas with a high level of polish is really hard. The whole obsession with “innovation” has given people the impression it is the other way around, as if the doing were the easy bit, if only we had some ideas to do. This is horseshit, and I say that as someone with notebooks full of unmade great ideas. They seem like they’re great ideas because they’re still ideas. As soon as you start to make them, you find out if they’re full of holes or not. With interactive and service design projects and, increasingly, products and product-service ideas, you really need to feel what they’re like and there’s nothing like sketching out a storyboard, a blueprint or prototyping, even with simple sticky notes, to get a much better sense of the idea.

Without Design Methods, I Feel Like I Am Cheating

Without Design Methods, I Feel Like I Am Cheating – another cracking post from Jon Kolko. This one is close to my heart because I teach design methods on HSLU’s MA Design and always make a point of saying that theory is practice and that methods are simply tools. As Jon says,

a design method won’t lead you to a good solution, because a design method has no natural relationship to the content of the problem. There’s no presumption of quality in the method, as each method is simply a series of artificial constraints that are introduced into a particular design context in order to help frame it.

There is a useful set of links at the end of Jon’s post too.

Entrepreneur designers in final form

Entrepreneur designers in final form – Liz Danzico has posted a thorough set of links to SVA’s IxD MA (@svaixd) brilliant course (in Europe we would say module) on Entrepreneurial Design taught by Gary Chou and Christina Cacioppo.

The final class project is that students must raise $1,000. Many, but not all, have gone the Kickstarter route (and been successful). It’s interesting to see how this task has kick-started (pun intended) the students into action rather than endless deliberation – the student curse.

Even more cool for the rest of us is that Gary and Christina have generously made their syllabus and assignments available to everyone under a CC license. Be sure to check out the class blog too. This kind of thing is the future of design education.


On The Value of Tinkering

On The Value of Tinkering is a thoughtful piece by Jeff Howard on the issues of teaching service design:

An entire generation of web designers have bootstrapped themselves into the profession without the need for a n actual client or project, or anyone else’s involvement or permission. That experimentation is how we learn.

But for a service designer, not only is such an arrangement less than ideal; it’s completely unworkable. Clients and the interactions they embody are the medium of a service. Designing without a client is like cooking without food. You simply can’t credibly explore beyond the line of visibility without access; or prototype without the cooperation of the people and systems involved. Speculative service design requires buy-in from the client (or at least acquiescence) on a scale that dwarfs the first-order disciplines.

Cobbling together that access is one of the core responsibilities of design schools.

This is very true and quite a challenge.

Raspberry Pi


Raspberry Pi, if you haven’t already heard, is an ARM GNU/Linux box for $25. It is a roughly credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. Model A 256Mb RAM, one USB port and no Ethernet (network connection). Model B has 256Mb RAM, 2 USB port and an Ethernet port (costs $35). You can boot from SD cards and even hook a hard-drive up to it to take over after the initial boot. Seneca College have put together a “remix” of Fedora to work on the Pi.

The makers of it basically want to put it in the hands of every schoolchild so that they can learn to program and not just use computers and devices. It’s founder talking on Radio 4 the other day said, “If you ask kids to code, they think it’s boring, but if you ask them to build their own “app”, they get really excited.” I’m paraphrasing, but it’s interesting what language can do.

Reminds me of the Sinclair ZX80 days. I seem to be having a bit of a retro computing week.


Coursekit is a free online learning management system. I’ve used a lot of the heavy duty, clunky systems over the years, such as Blackboard, WebCT and Moodle and most of them feel stuck in 1996. Right now I use Omnium for my online teaching. It’s something I’ve put a lot of time into helping shape in the early days, but I’d be fibbing if I said it couldn’t do with a bit of an UI update.

I haven’t used Coursekit yet – these days I mostly create a blog for my students and let them use whatever tools they like – but it looks promising and is really how these systems should look and feel. Light, uncluttered, user-friendly. Obvious, really, except to university IT departments.

The only worry is its financial model, which is the build it and hope they will come approach. I’d like to know they’ll be around in 5 years’ time.

Via Veronica Grow (@oldschoolthenew)

End User Development and more from

Mads Soegaard and his wife Rikke Friis Dam have been hard at work over at their site, a free and well put together resource of educational materials about interaction design. The whole site is set up as an encyclopedia with tightly focused articles that have expert commentary underneath and often plenty of video interview material. It’s also been formatted for print/PDF export as well as iPad/iPhone reading. A lot of effort has gone into the site (read the history of it) and it is well worth regularly visiting – the main encyclopedia page already has plenty of useful chapters.

Mads has pre-released some new material on End User Development, “a set of methods, techniques and tools that allow users of software systems, who are acting as non-professional software developers, at some point to create, modify, or extend a software artifact” (Lieberman et al 2006). The intro video is below, which gives some definitions:

While the focus of this tends to be on software, I think there are also some lessons to be learned in terms of service designers delivering tools and skills to organizations they are working for, who in turn can further develop according to their needs themselves. On the one hand, it feels like we’re almost putting ourselves out of business – the old teach a man to fish idea. But I think there are plenty of smaller situations in which organizations do well working internally and pull in outside expertise when they feel they need the external input or a deeper knowledge of a process. It’s much like the difference between basic car maintenance and hiring a mechanic. The added benefit is that organizations are much more receptive to your processes and interventions when they have already taken on the mindset themselves.

Design Research – A Failure of Imagination?

Have design education and design research failed to fire up the imagination in public discourse? I believe so and I believe the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mantra has unbalanced thinking about education curricula in general. John Thackara’s recent Observers Room newsletter notes the same:

Last month, as the Dutch government expelled trouble-making artists from the state funding system, UK and US policymakers demanded a stronger focus by education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the STEM subjects. They claim a STEM workforce “determines a nation’s ability to sustain itself.”

No it does not. A too-sharp focus on STEM creates an innovation policy that is not fit for purpose. We need to diversify, not reduce, our ways of knowing and acting in the world. We need to emphasize the social dimension of innovation, not just technology. And we need to master systems thinking more than silo thinking. Experimental art and design can help us do all of the above — not as an alternative to science, but as its enrichment.

True innovators decline to remain locked in the STEM cell.

Last month I spoke at the Cumulus/Design Research Society Researching Design Education Symposium in Paris and argued a similar case. For a profession that claims imagination and divergent thinking to be among its key attributes, design research has failed to ignite public imagination. Despite efforts by the likes of John Maeda, the rhetoric of STEM dominates the media. Science writers expound in newspaper columns, entire TV channels are devoted to the wonders of science. Science is, of course, important, but this one-sided view of research has not been counter-balanced by an equivalent, passionate exploration of the boundaries of design in the public sphere. Yet the potential is there – arguably, a handful of TED Talks have done more to raise the awareness of the importance of design than several decades of design research publication. Although there are exceptions, design research has failed to imagine and communicate an integrated vision of design comparable to that of science.

The paper I wrote for the presentation argues that design has failed to integrate the nexus of theory, research and practice and is a call to arms for design researchers to bring their activities into a broader, public discourse. Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, design education research has become too convergent in its thinking and discipline specific. As practices such as service design engage in projects at the public policy level, it is essential for design to explicitly articulate the process of design synthesis in order to gain and maintain credibility, for such projects offers an opportunity to bring design’s value and activities on par with the sciences in public discourse.

You can download the full paper, Design Research – A Failure of Imagination? and the presentation slides (8.5MB PDF – lots of images). The full proceedings of the symposium are available on the conference website.

I would be very interested to hear any feedback or opinions from others on this subject.