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How to tell memorable stories through sketching

Great stories are often not random, here are a few ways to help make your story flow easier.

By telling stories, we have the power to bring people together. Some stories, we can remember for a long time when we feel a connection to the characters. Thinking back to these stories can make us feel joy, inspiration, empathy, hope, or even angry and upset. These feelings compel us to take action.

As a designer, we can use storytelling to paint stories for other people.

A sketch of a woman on a piece of paper.

A sketch of Hani Afrah from her photo in the Toronto Star.

Here’s a story I remember from a talk last year.

This story was originally told by Paula Kwan, the former Director of the Civic Innovation Office at the City of Toronto. She brought to life a story of one woman’s struggle. This story resonated with me because it was a reminder of just how much the systems we design have an impact on people who rely on them.

In the story, she introduces a mother named Hani Afrah.

Hani wanted to sign her daughters up for swimming lessons. However, with the online registration systems in 2014, it was a very painful experience for families to register online. This option was especially difficult for non-english speakers or those without access to fast internet -many of which would need to line up in person.

On the day of seasonal registration, Hani would line up with her daughters at 2am outside of the Aquatic center. Hani loves to swim. If she’s lucky, her daughters could learn how to swim too. After waiting outside for 5 hours, she’s told by staff that the programs were already full.

Hani recalls seeing other families “using (the pools) in front of us because they are privileged, they have a faster computer… we don’t have that luxury”.

Other families have also expressed extreme frustration when having to “literally arrange their entire schedule for days to be sitting by a computer”. Parents would copy and paste 6 digit program codes out of a booklet (with backups for when the programs they wanted were already full) or have multiple family members trying to hit refresh at the same time to access the system.

Thankfully, stories like Hani’s have helped bring change to the registration system. Now families without access to computers or fast internet connections are not at the back of the line.

I actually reached out to Paula on LinkedIn and she kindly sent me a link to the full story that you can read here.

. . .

What Makes a Story Memorable

Great stories are often not random, there are elements that help a story flow.

. . .

How to Tell Memorable Stories through Sketching

Find opportunities in your own life to help others visualize the stories that you share.

1) Create Visual Summaries

One way to practice telling stories is to summarize something you’ve recently read or learned about. The key idea here is to choose a topic that truly resonated with you. This will allow you to deliver your own version of the message, connect with your audience and bring in personal experiences.

I practiced this technique by creating visual summaries of my favourite books. This was also a fun way to reward myself for reading. The challenge was to summarize a book with one side of a blank sheet of paper. Having only one page meant that I couldn’t get a new one if I made mistakes. This restraint made it quite challenging, especially when I was summarizing Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book on human history. At the same time, a lot can be told with just one page.

After sharing a few book summaries online, people started reaching out to me for coffee chats and even printing out screenshots of my sketches. Sharing your own version of these stories is not only personally rewarding but it helps people connect with the message in a different way.

See the book summaries I created here.

two visual summaries side by side

Here’s a book summary I posted of Atomic Habits by James Clear that I posted on LinkedIn (left). One of my connections on LinkedIn took a screenshot of this post and printed it out (right).

Examples of how you can use this tactic:

2) Speak to Someone Else’s Struggle

Often the most memorable stories are ones that we hear about from others. A unique aspect of being a designer is the characters in our stories are real people. As we dive deeper into problems, we are able to hear these stories directly from those who experience it.

Every project is, in essence, an opportunity to carry these stories over to our teams and present them to people who are able to solve these problems. There are many ways that you can tell stories in your design process. For example, referring to users by their name, bringing in some context about their life, how they’re feeling, how your product or system helps them accomplish their goals, their struggles, or by adding quotes from interviews into your sketches as you help voice their problems.

2 women looking at a white board in the background with a laptop and sticknotes in the foreground

Another tip that I’ve learned to apply to my projects is to help your teams celebrate resolving problems that people face rather than the completion of a project. Solving the main problem should be your team’s north star metric.

3) Help Others Visualize Your Design Process

An important skill for a designer is to be able to walk others through their design process and pitch their ideas visually. This could be through project case studies or getting feedback in design review sessions (design jams as we call it). Oftentimes, ideas are met with resistance if your clients or team members are simply not able to see it the way you do.

Sketches are stories that help you align with your audience. If people can visualize it, they can then bring in new perspectives without getting lost in the prior steps. The sketching process allows you to show how you think through problems. For example, you can add arrows and annotations, include feedback or make iterations directly in your sketches to illustrate the various approaches you’ve explored in order to come up with the proposed solution.

Sketches should be thought of as a necessary part of visual problem solving rather than just included as a project deliverable.

Sketches for rapid prototyping exericse

Example sketches from rapid prototyping exercise (Redesign of Mindbody app, 2018).

Preview of high fidelity screens.

Preview of high fidelity screens.

. . .

Conclusion

We are storytellers as much as we are designers. By connecting stories with visuals, we can start to change how systems and products work and impact the lives of people who rely on them.

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” – Steve Jobs

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Thanks for reading! If you are interested in chatting, drop me a message at elainetran.tran@gmail.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Product Designer at Venngage. I tell stories about personal growth and design on Medium. If you'd like to reach out, I'd be happy to connect on LinkedIn!

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