Once Upon a Time

The Art of Storytelling

As I was pondering topics for my speaking engagement at FLEX Camp Miami this year I stumbled upon an NPR interview called “A Movie’s Look, From Toilet To Villain’s Lair.” An interview with award winning set designer J. Michael Riva. It was a fascinating look into the life of the Hollywood Set Designer and how they interact and connect with Producers, Directors, and ultimately the audience. The, sometimes, over-the-top profession where telling a story is all about making it believable for the rest of us. Where just the right prop can elicit a feeling of longing, happiness, or despair. Where creation of a story begins not with the “features” that can make it believable but rather the subtleties of understanding the movies goal, that overall emotional connection the story is trying to pull from the viewer.

As I kept listening I began to realize that design in all its different flavors; print, interactive, application, environmental, industrial, fashion, automotive…everything we’re trying to accomplish revolves around telling great stories, stories that connect and engage a user in a way that is meaningful and lasting to them. So “The Art of Storytelling” was born. An engaging look at, not only the anatomy of what makes a great story but how it relates to the practice and principles of Experience Design. Here are the highlights:

The Anatomy of a Great Story (lead Character. Ambition. Conflict. Resolution)

1. Lead character: All stories must have a Lead Character. Someone that over the course of pages or time we get to know and begin to connect with. Authors and Directors give us insights into the lead character by giving us a back-story in order for us to:

  • Understand the motivations behind their actions
  • Connect with their situation
  • Emotionally engage with their story
  • Know how they got to where they’re at
  • Understand where they’re headed

In order for Designers/developers to create compelling interactions they must first and foremost understand who they’re designing or building for. Without a back-story, an intimate connection to the user, then all we’re doing is designing for the sake of designing. We’re not truly designing for the end user but rather what we “think” the end user would want. So Understanding the Lead Character in your story is critical to the success of the experience!

2. Ambition: So now that the movie is progressing and we have a pretty good grasp on who the lead character is we begin to uncover their ambition; their Goal. The ambition gives us the ultimate view into the tension and motivations that exist within the story:

  • Ambition helps give clarity to the characters goal
  • Ambition sets the tone and direction of the story
  • Ambition gives us a purpose
  • Ambition now gives us a Lead Character with a set of objectives

Once we have that intimate connection and true understanding of the end user we now can understand their ambitions, their motivations. Motivations and reasoning for them using the application, wanting to buy that car, wear those jeans, or purchase that song. We now have something to work with! But without understanding who the lead character (demographic, sex, location, race…) is we would never fully comprehend their goals and ambitions, thus creating something I would consider to be the opposite of “user centric.”

3. Conflict: Ah yes, every great story has conflict. Some impending disaster waiting to unfold that catapults our character into a sea of uncertainty. Like in the movie 300 or The Lord of the Rings where the smaller armies awaiting a certain death hold their ground as the sound of the enemies drums pound in their chests. It’s doing what’s right even in the face of certain obstacles.

  • Conflict brings tension but tension brings resolution
  • Conflict is fraught with risk and is never easy to deal with
  • Conflict gives a voice to the characters ambition and motivations
  • Conflict occurs when opposing forces don’t understand one another
  • Conflict has the ability to change the course of a story!

When you’ve done your homework and took the time to understand the end user you’ll always have something to go back to when tough decisions need to be made.

  1. Why are you choosing to use that platform and not this one? “Because the end users are all early adopters of technology and would embrace this environment with open arms”
  2. Why would you chose that color? “Because your users will be using mobile devices such as an iPhone and we needed to accommodate for outdoor usage and the mobile culture”

4. Resolution: When the lead character has, through their ambitions and conflicts, struggled through to the end they’ve typically ended up someplace better than before.

  • Resolution gives us closure on the decisions we’ve made throughout the story
  • Resolution gives us the ability to learn and accept change
  • Resolution gives us a new starting point to begin again

Resolution is not the end of the story but rather a new starting point. Perhaps during the story we’ve learned new characteristics about our lead character that were previously buried beneath the rubble. Or it’s possible that others have joined the story and have new perspectives that would enhance or even change the course of the narrative. Whatever it happens to be resolution ultimately gives us a fresh perspective and a new set of guidelines that will help shape the narrative because now we are starting from a place filled with knowledge!

The Art of Storytelling has given us insights into the Anatomy of a Great Story but what we can’t forget is this: It’s not just about the story but its also how the story is told that matters!

  1. How are we being engaged within the story? (photography, cinematography, transitions, sounds, color, brand impression)
  2. How is the user moving through the experience we’ve created?
  3. What metaphors are being created to help guide the user?
  4. What obstacles exist that need to be moved? (business, financial, economic, personal, community)
  5. What objectives must the user meet in order to be successful?
  6. Is it better than it was before (Quicker, simpler, more engaging)

The Art of Storytelling is all around us and can be seen everywhere you look. From the clothes we wear to the music we listen to. Everything, and everyone, has their own unique story. These compelling, engaging experiences that give us insight into who we are as an individual, a community, a company, a product, and a culture. Infused with a style and language all our own we are all the leading character in our own stories!

For us designers and developers helping to create these stories we must constantly revisit the cast of characters  in order to fully create a story that is inspiring, thoughtful, and simply worth coming back to!


The End!

~ by Christian on March 19, 2009.

One Response to “Once Upon a Time”

  1. Really great article Christian. Very good comparison and insight into each discipline and the skill of storytelling in general. I imagine this has only tuned your writing as well.

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