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.
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.
- Start with a Clear Message - Begin a storytelling exercise by asking yourself: Who is my audience and what is the message that I want to share with them? This message should resonate with your audience and be clearly communicated throughout the story.
- Speak to a Struggle - Help your audience connect with the character(s) by giving them an identity, a purpose and show how they’ve struggled or responded to challenges in their environment.
- Provide Real Examples - Anchor your story by drawing on real-life experiences or even quotes that you’ve gathered in your research process. Each example should bring with it some context about why this example supports the original message.
- Draw on Research Data - Problems exist everywhere, but not all problems are important to solve. Bring to light the number of people who also experience this struggle and why this problem is important to solve right now.
- Create Structure - A good story structure should progress in a linear path. You want your audience to be able to easily understand and follow along with your story.
- Make it Simple - Leave out any details that take away from the main message.
- Practice - Great stories don’t always sound so great at first, but rehearsing stories will help you find ways to tell it better.
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.
Examples of how you can use this tactic:
- Reach out to an expert and summarize knowledge that they’ve shared.
- Sketch out your notes at the next conference you attend.
- Create a PSA about a topic or cause you care about.
- Research a topic you’re curious about and present it as a visual to your team.
- Tell the story of your ‘aha-moments’ and things that you’ve learned in your career.
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.
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.
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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