Simplifying Storytelling in Design: Essential Elements and Rules to Apply

Raluca Angelescu
March 20, 2023
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As designers, we often hear that storytelling is a crucial ingredient for success in sharing our design ideas. Storytelling is the cool kid around the block, everyone talks about it, but few offer actionable advice or explain what it is and what it entails for Designers. This article explores how we can simplify storytelling and apply it to the design world.

To begin, let's examine some essential elements and rules.

The narrative arc

A narrative begins with an inciting incident or a call to action. Cinderella gets her call to action when the king invites every maiden in the land to the royal ball. In product design, every user action, from logging in to sharing content, is a smaller scene in a larger narrative.

In 1863, Gustav Freytag, a German playwright and novelist, created the narrative arc, which divides dramatic works into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion or denouement. This pattern is ubiquitous and makes for a useful tool when we want to communicate our design decisions. By following the narrative arc in our presentations, team meetings, or interviews for a new design role, we give our stories a satisfying sense of completion.

This storytelling pattern is ubiquitous, making it a handy tool when we want to communicate our Design decisions: in a presentation, a team meeting, or an interview for a new Design role.

How to practice this?

✅ Don't skip the middle part, the turning point, the challenges. Many designers make the mistake of talking about the brief and then jumping straight into showing the solution. By doing so, we take away from the satisfaction of going through the narrative arc, leave things to the imagination, and dampen the excitement of the story. If Cinderella went straight to the ball, there would be no story.

✅ Talk more about the why. Almost every movie or game plot is driven by a goal or intention. Characters start battles, heroes embark on life-changing journeys or search for the love of their life because of deeper motivations. Similarly, when presenting our designs, we can explain the underlying motivations for our design decisions. Those can range from research findings to technical constraints or challenges of any nature, including the team, the client, or the timing of our work.

The hero's journey

Earlier in our article, we briefly mentioned Cinderella as an example of a story structure, but focused little on her character. Although we know about the invitation to the ball, we didn't explore her challenges or motivations.

Aside from a well-structured plot, a compelling story also features a protagonist who undergoes a journey of self-discovery, encountering obstacles and working to overcome them. As designers, we can use the hero's journey to create engaging stories that connect with our audience and effectively communicate our design ideas.

In the context of design, the hero's journey typically starts with a problem or challenge that needs to be solved. This could be a product usability issue, a design flaw, or a communication problem in a marketing campaign. Many designers tend to focus on challenges and obstacles but often forget to include a hero in their story. Or, at best, the hero is portrayed as the design process itself.

How to change this?

✅ Make yourself part of the story. Share your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives with the audience. By taking on the role of the hero in the story, you can help the audience connect and empathize with the narrative. It's important to remember that the process is simply a tool to help tell the story and not the main focus.

Managing complexity

Various research studies indicate that when people are faced with too many options, they may find it challenging to make a decision. This same principle applies when we narrate the story behind our design decisions. If we delve too much into the details, challenges, and teams involved, we risk losing our audience's interest and attention.

To avoid this, focus on the main characters and teams involved and try to highlight the most critical turning points,

To avoid this, focus on the main characters and teams involved and highlight the most critical turning points, even if the design process resembled a labyrinth with countless twists and turns. Ellen Lupton, in her book "Design is Storytelling," provides simple yet powerful examples of how to leverage this principle.

For instance, imagine a recipe for scrambled eggs. If you start by explaining how to crack an egg, and then gradually build up to finding a frying pan, turning on the stove, and so on, you risk losing your audience's interest and leaving them hungry. Instead, assume some prior knowledge and create a three-step algorithm for a novice egg-scrambler.

Designing anything complex, whether it's a souffle, a house, or a digital product, is not easy. Make your audience a part of your story by delivering only the most essential elements that offer both structure and engagement, without overwhelming them with too many details.

How to practice this?

✅ Let's do an exercise. The next time you come across a product guide that claims to be just three steps, take a closer look to see if it truly reflects the reality.

The power of the number three can be quite alluring as it allows us to simplify and convey complexity without overwhelming our audience. Whenever you do a presentation, work on a case study, or think about the insights you got from research, start by choosing the most essential 3. What key elements can single-handedly shape your product's future or convey vital insights that your client needs to know?

Once you've identified these critical elements, you can build your presentation or case study around them, while still including other important information. This approach lets you distill information and avoid being overwhelmed by too much detail.

✅ Understand your audience Do you remember those books you read as a child and now as an adult, you realize the plot from a different angle? The way we empathize with characters has changed. The reason is that we, as the audience, see things differently. Similarly, when telling a story, the audience matters. The same story will be understood differently by difference categories of people. This logic applies to presentations and storytelling too. Before putting together the story, think about who the story is for. Is it for a hiring manager, a designer, a software development team, or a client? Different people have different interests. For instance, a story about a user interview will appeal to all, but talking about a specific method may only interest the designer and make others bored.

In conclusion, storytelling is a crucial aspect of design, and designers need to develop the skills to craft compelling narratives that effectively communicate their design ideas. To simplify storytelling, follow the narrative arc, include your journey as the here of the story, and focus on the essential details to avoid overwhelming the audience. Sharing your thoughts and perspectives can make yourself part of the story and help the audience connect and empathize with the narrative.

Leveraging the power of the number three can also simplify complexity and create engaging stories that leave a lasting impression.

Storytelling is a skill that can be mastered over time through practice. Just like the hero in a story, if you persist and confront each challenge, you can become a skilled storyteller in no time.

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