Design is Storytelling

Ashley Conner | 10/07/2019

Earlier this year, EY Design Studio PHL hosted a Design Brew event in Manayunk called Design at Play: Injecting Play Into Our Creative Process. We invited participants to join us in Collab: a freeform practice that offers designers the opportunity to think creatively in new ways and work closely with people they may not typically interact with every day. Participants were initially broken into three groups then placed into one of the three activities that we had set up throughout the office. It was our goal to get our participants moving, collaborating and thinking about design. Activities included “Think Like an Architect,” led by Erin Chan, “Personas at Play,” with Nellie Ortiz and “Design is Storytelling,” which I ran. Groups rotated through activities approximately every 30 minutes.

I began the Design is Storytelling activity with a short five-minute talk. The stage was set to think about how every design creates a story. As designers, we use the iterative process of creating solutions to help users and businesses overcome obstacles and reach their goals. We utilize design, along with storytelling, to connect with humans and users on an emotional level. We do this by adding emotional imagery and offering a sensory experience, all while keeping people at the center of our process.

First, we get to know our target users through research. We then use plot, the user’s journey and conflict — or the challenges users face — to form the core of the story. A great story also incorporates a main character (your users), a supporting role (the product) and a setting (the “why” and “when” users need your product). We use design principles like color, typography and layout to create the first and lasting impression of the product to support the story.

When we hear a story, the neural activity in our brain increases, meaning that users are more likely to remember a message when we deliver our designs through stories. This idea led into the storytelling activity for the night, which was called Conducted Story. As I have personally enjoyed many improv comedy shows in Philadelphia and love improv’s “think on your feet” nature, I decided to incorporate it into my activity.

Participants were asked to line up shoulder to shoulder facing me, the leader of the activity. I first introduced the story by providing a plot — a few paragraphs that set up the overall storyline. I then proceeded to physically point to the first person in the group and ask them to continue the story. I proceeded to jump around the line, pointing to different individuals randomly at the end of an idea, in the middle of a sentence, or even mid-thought, prompting them to continue the story in their own way. Anyone who stopped, stuttered or paused for a few seconds was out and the story continued to the next person. The activity was intensified with the addition of key words on a set of cards in front of the participants. When a chime was heard, the person speaking at that time needed to immediately pick up the card and incorporate the word on the card into the story. The last person standing was considered the master storyteller.

The activities for all three groups were full of creative solutions and unique storylines. Laughter and clapping filled the room as the stories pivoted and took drastic turns for better or for worse. Participants were asked to reflect on the activity, noting the importance of listening and being present. Staying engaged and always being prepared was crucial as the next part may be conducted by them. They also learned to be flexible — with the story jumping around mid-sentence or mid-word, it kept them thinking on their feet, and gave them the opportunity to pivot the plot at any time. Lastly, participants felt value in being themselves and being authentic and found comfort in speaking about what they knew best. This allowed them to speak freely, openly and candidly.

Design at Play was fun for everyone — from the presenters, to the participants, to the observers watching from the sidelines and laughing along with us. We look forward to hosting another event like this in the future where we can see what the next collaborative design crew has to offer!