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Lessons in Design from Storytellers

- Thursday, November 04, 2010 |

The most successful and loved brands have a story to tell. Some of the best memories we have are carefully crafted into the best stories of our lives. There is, undoubtedly, a very strong attachment to stories we recognize in ourselves. And there will always be a charismatic person, a storyteller who uses his skills and social intelligence to energize, inspire and influence thousands of people, for the better.

In this article we will talk about how you, the designer, can create stories that people love, remember and share.

but the forest bestows the simplest of truths.
Photo by: AmandaLouise

Alternative Uses of Storytelling

The use of storytelling can be found in team-building, training and marketing. A short story may be used as an introduction, so that everybody starts to adjust their mindset to absorb and reflect the emotions and feelings embedded in the story and what comes next. You may find stories in business presentations, carefully written by content strategists, in advertising and, of course, in copywriting. It is easy to see how words and speech in different contexts can tell stories. We are used to reading and hearing stories, but how can you help tell a story with design?

As a designer, you might think that telling stories is a domain reserved by copywriters, bloggers and writers, but that isn't the case. The use of images and elements of design can help to tell a story too. Think about it: what people see is instantly translated in words and thoughts, so that they make sense of it. Words and meanings generate emotions, reactions and become part of the things that people remember over time. Stories are easy remember, stories can move people. Stories make people listen. What’s your story?

Design Lessons from Storytellers

1. Typeface

Storytellers use tone, rhythm, intonation and body language to emphasize parts of the story, to add more drama or induce a certain feeling and mood in the listeners.

Applying it in design: The typography chosen can reflect the mood of a design and create a contrast to grab the users attention. Use big, bold letters in bright colors to punctuate, emphasize, intrigue and make specific items or concepts stand out. This works better with single words, concepts, short call to action phrases, than with headlines. You can use geometric, clear, sans-serif typefaces for a clean, minimalist and modern looking interface; or serif, humanic typefaces or italics - to denote a sense of natural elegance and emphasize your unique style and personality.

Either way, a smart choice of typeface can be a very powerful tool in getting your story across the way you intend to. Master typography and think about how type weights, font families and contrast can help you use type as powerful tool to convey the emotion behind your message.

Example Charity: Water

2. Elements of Interaction

Another important aspect in storytelling is the numerous ways that storytellers engage with listeners. They might ask something like "Do you want to know what comes next?" or make direct reference to their listener's own experiences by suggesting parts of the story familiar to them.

Applying it in design: Use elements of interaction create the feeling that the information provided is the immediate answer to a previous question or derived from previous data. For example, you can use a popular method of designing the menu in such a way that it makes the users ask themselves questions like “Why?”, “How?”, “When?” and “Who?”. On clicking the link, button or widget – they receive the appropriate answer. This helps them turn the interactive experience with your website into a narration they will find easier to remember, relate to and share with others. Using a call to action to show the user you have the answer to their question or problem will entice them and put them in a mindset that is ready to be immersed in your story.

If you want to learn more, check out our post about how you can use elements of Style in Interaction and UX Design.

Example: SYPartners

3. Mirror your Audience

Storytellers are excellent influencers. They make people listen to them because they are in tune with their audience, drawing them in so that they're waiting for more. They make a connection by mirroring the people they talk to and lock into a context that is beneficial to building a friendly, open and close relationship. Some of the best storytellers will make you laugh, cry, feel exalted and inspired. And you will remember their strong presence for a very long time.

Applying it in design: You can easily understand mirroring by observing people around you having a conversation. Depending on how close two people are, as friends, they may “mirror” each other's gestures, facial expressions, sometimes verbal expressions and even go as far as to adopt similar attitudes or reactions.

If you wish to address a specific type of person, with specific personality traits, preferences and attitudes, you can easily start a conversation with them and make yourself more familiar to them, by adjusting the style and tone of your content.

As a designer you can use relevant images and color palettes that are likely to be in tune with your audience’s preferences. For example a site directed to business owners should have a professional clean look, while a site for kid's toy should have a playful, fun and vibrant aesthetic. Your audience needs to relate to you and that’s what they want to see first. If they don't feel that they can relate, they will go somewhere else.

Example: Globetroopers

4. Inspire your Audience

You do not have to make your story self-evident by having large amounts of text covering your website. In fact, you don’t need to write that much at all to create a story behind your website. What you can do is to provide your audience with relevant examples, case-studies and samples. Provide relevant details, tell the story behind the project, be original and make yourself understood.

If you do that, your audience will better understand what you do (the story) and who you are (the main character).

Tips for designers: Use testimonials on the site you are designing (whether it is a client's or your own) to show the customer real people that are satisfied and have found their answer through this product or service. Make sure that the testimonials are worded in a way that addresses the concerns of a potential customer. When their doubts are addressed and they see how people just like them have their needs met through this product/service they will feel inclined to purchase it as well.

Example: Basecamp

Endnote: You can use your communication skills to give directions, make things clear, expressive and inviting. You can use your intuition and your talent to make your design elicit emotions and move people. These tips can help you create stories through your work, and become a part of the narrative that people will remember. Be part of our story by commenting below and letting us know what you think.

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yan commented on 01-Sep-2011 07:52 AM
Is there any book that you've written about the tips on how to make a creative storytelling design? Please reply..
Bryan commented on 03-Sep-2011 03:06 AM
Hey Yan, we saw you posted this message on twitter and responded to you there. We don't have a book on storytelling design yet, but maybe in the future ;)

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