Interview

Archit Jha & Stas Aki

Senior Designers on Storytelling Techniques That Work

March 15, 2021
Interview
March 15, 2021

Archit Jha & Stas Aki

Senior Designers on Storytelling Techniques That Work

Once upon a time, there was a designer who believed that good designs could tell stories. No, he didn't turn into a pumpkin at midnight and instead showed us actual proof of the concept that we want to share with you in this article.

On a serious note, storytelling is a method of telling stories so breathtakingly that the audience is compelled to get engaged. According to the storytelling.design project dedicated to this topic, "Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener's imagination."

Designers often use storytelling techniques to get insight about users, build an emotional connection to them, and engage with them more efficiently. Designers create personas to represent target users and add conflict to stories that reflect their user journeys and issues. By crafting exciting stories, designers can better understand what users want to get from a solution. They build more representative personas and understand the needs of customers much more successfully.

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around

Terry Pratchett, English author

It is important to note that we are not referring to one particular entity but a wide range of practices drawn from 'Storytelling in Design.' The varied characters of storytelling in design have been gaining traction for quite some time. Storytelling is often cited as a method for designing user experiences. Just in the last few years, the web has produced countless articles on building a narrative with visuals and copy.

On a side note, if you look closely at the structure of a storyline, you will notice many similarities to the product design process. The one exceedingly common thing is problem solving, and the other one is the context that shapes the narrative around it. Another way of engaging users with storytelling is telling a story from a user's perspective, which might help one discover new ideas for innovation and improvements. It helps one see things in a different light and discover yet unseen opportunities. Most of the time, users will feel more emotionally connected to artifacts and interfaces that provide opportunities for building personal narratives.

We asked two senior designers to share their experiences using storytelling techniques in their work and give us some examples of great storytelling in design.

Archit Jha, Product Designer at DocuSign

Archit is a Product Designer on DocuSign's CLM team based out of Chicago. As an engineer-turned-designer, he loves to dabble with multiple facets of product development. From conducting UX research for Motorola Solutions in the sphere of Public Safety and helping Wish build a merchant platform in the competitive world of e-commerce, he has solved many challenges across enterprise and consumer-facing products. In addition to pushing pixels, he enjoys binge-watching anime, trying out new restaurants, and writing reviews on Google Maps.

The Power of Emotions

Storytelling has the power to elicit emotions, influence subjective perceptions, and inspire actions. As opposed to the popular notion, your work doesn't always speak for itself. As long as the audience of your work is human, storytelling is an absolute necessity in order to establish a connection and drive communication.

Learn the Fundamentals of a Good Story

I believe that a good start to becoming an effective and engaging storyteller is to understand the fundamentals of a good story. I personally love the way Pixar tells stories in their animated films and always look up to them for inspiration. If you make a believable character, set the circumstances well, and keep the basic plot simple, you'll have all the ingredients of a good story. Imagine that the product problem you're solving is your character. They’re going through the ups and downs of planning, scoping, and execution, and the climax is releasing the product to consumers, with product feedback being the result.

Keep Practicing

It can take a lifetime to master storytelling skills since there is just so much to learn. Most good stories have past, present, and future arcs carrying the character through their journey. The challenge for the storyteller is fleshing out these arcs. In my opinion, every email, social media post, presentation, and report that you create, is a storytelling opportunity. Whether it be in words or pictures, if you can split your message into these arcs and make each arc an engaging one, you'd have a good story to tell. Kurt Vonnegut's graphs depicting different shapes of stories and Dan Harmon's story circle are frameworks that can help understand story arcs.

In my role, I do a lot of visual storytelling and produce journey maps, data-flow diagrams, stakeholder maps, which I use all the time to tell stories about concepts, objects, or experiences. Those have arcs as well, they’re just expressed differently. I'd just say, keep practicing and trying different things to see what clicks.

Inspiring Examples of Storytelling

I'm a fan of infographics published in the New York Times. It's a great example of how a complex set of data (read: brain-wrecking stats) can be distilled into simple nuggets of information that can be understood by almost anyone. They tell a powerful story through a creative use of charts and graphs. It has the right amount of creativity to keep it engaging for everyone and just the right structure to keep it true to the numbers and scale. In their recent coverage of the US presidential elections, NYT published an Electoral Votes map that effectively tells a story of the final tally and the contribution of every state to the electoral college irrespective of their landmass, which is often confusing to a lot of people.

Finally, in terms of storytelling, what would you choose: creativity or structure?

I'm going to cheat here a bit and say that they go hand in hand with each other. Creativity makes a story engaging, while structure makes it coherent. If you really did have to choose one, I'd say pick depending on your audience. If your audience has no clue about the topic, you'd need to get the structure right to get the message across. Whereas if they are well-versed in the topic, you can lean on creativity to take something they already know and make it captivating. 

Stas Aki, an Art Director and Product Designer of Readymag

Stas is a multidisciplinary designer based in Moscow, Russia, with ten years of commercial experience in graphic, motion, and user interface design. He has designed prints, ads, brand identities, packaging, movie posters, book covers, websites, and mobile user interfaces for local and international brands throughout his career.

Since 2016 he’s been responsible for the art direction and product design of Readymag, a browser-based design tool.

What’s your take on storytelling: is it a necessity or just an effective technique?

Design is communication. Thus, it functions the same way as storytelling. The better your storytelling is, the more efficient the communication is. It is a necessity for sure.

A Plan on How to Become Better at Storytelling

  1. Practice. 
  2. Experiment. 
  3. Make mistakes. 
  4. Improve.
  5. Try again.

Find Your Sources of Inspiration

I watch movies. You can learn a lot from cinema. It develops aesthetic taste and a sense of rhythm. It also teaches you how to convey meaning. Storytelling on the web is a lot like storytelling in cinema, capturing users’ attention and guiding them through a scenario that designers foresee. The main difference, though, is that cinema is linear, while websites are used in a non-linear way. This adds uncertainty. A variety of tools are used today to decrease this uncertainty, from feedback and quantifiable metrics to the personal experience of a designer, including intuition.

Search for Examples of Good Storytelling

Typography Principles, a beautifully crafted project by the agency Obys, made with Readymag, was created to share the fundamentals of typography with eye-catching illustrations and side-scrolling.

Illuminating Radioactivity is another cool example of storytelling created with Readymag. It tells people about radiation and its defining characteristics in an entertaining and educational way. It includes all the necessary information about radioactive elements and what to do around them.

Finally, in terms of storytelling, what would you choose: creativity or structure?

These aren’t mutually exclusive. Structure (even an invisible one) is a must. It puts the user on the same page as the creator, letting them follow the narrative and know where to go next. Without creativity, there’s nothing you can do.

Happily Ever After

To sum it up, storytelling is a powerful communication tool that allows us to understand more about our emotional experiences. This makes it an effective technique to use during the design process. It can be used during the phases of the design thinking process, with each stage having a different goal. Storytelling allows us to gather personalized emotional data about the consumer experience. That experience can be hard to collect using other research methods such as surveys and consumer journey mapping.

So here are a few things storytelling can help designers with:

  • Describe the impact of a new design
  • Assist in building empathy and connection with users
  • Humanize the design process and analytical data involved
  • Distribute data gained from research
  • Show the rationale behind the design process, which is often seen as chaotic

One of the most important things that a designer needs to do as a creative professional is stimulate the imagination of their audience. A true visionary builds a narrative that tells a story in a way that feels right to the author. Storytelling techniques can help you get the users’ attention, but you are the only one who can offer them the solution they need. So design your own stories and show them to the world. 

Credits: Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Rafayel Mkrtchyan, Martin Erikson

Written by Serafima Aleksandrova

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