June 1, 2017

Tell Me a Story

The Power of a Narrative

“How do we get our message out there?” 

It’s a good question.  

“How do we tell the people?”  “What medium do we use?”  These are all good questions.  But I propose there’s a better question.  In a world where information is being constantly pushed on the average consumer, the more important question is this….

How do we make them listen?

Instead of focusing on how we push information out, what if we focused on pulling our audience in?  With a story.

Believe it or not, storytelling is actually a compelling design principle.   In Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, Holden and Butler explain it as follows.  

“Use storytelling to engage an audience in a design, evoke a specific emotional response, or provide a rich context to enhance learning.  When successfully employed, an audience will experience and recall the events of the story in a personal way – it becomes a part of them.  This is a phenomenon unique to storytelling.”

So how can we practically tell a story with our designs, promotional experiences, and branding?  We start by looking at the elements of a good narrative. 

Setting: The setting gives an orientation for the audience with a sense of place and time.

Characters: Audiences become involved with a story when they identify, and identify with, the characters.  Characters make the story relevant.

Plot: The plot moves the narrative along, weaving important events together for the characters to experience. 

Movement: While the plot moves the story along, the movement itself, is just as important.  A good story doesn’t stall.  The sequence is easy to follow and interesting. 

Invisibility: The better the story, the more invisible the storyteller (or medium) becomes.   As an audience is drawn in, the acknowledgement of the storyteller fades. 

Mood: Create an emotional tone with prose style, lighting, and music. 


Now let’s apply…

Storytelling in brand design

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne.  As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”  -Bruce Wayne, “The Dark Knight”

 Symbols are powerful and symbolism is prevalent in any good story.  Your logo, in its most basic sense, is a symbol.  So, when designing your logo, think hard about who you are at your core.  Don’t just make it pretty, make it meaningful.  Use color to evoke emotion and mood.   Utilize archetypes to activate predispositions and nostalgia.  Know your audience, read the room, and make it engaging to them. 


Storytelling when designing experiences

First of all, remember that EVERYTHING YOU DESIGN WILL BE AN EXPERIENCE.  This will transform how you market as a whole.  But when specifically designing promotional experiences such as fundraisers, grand openings or even booth spaces, bring your guests into your story.  Immerse your audience.  Make the setting come alive.  Just like telling a story, you get to control the plot, the movement, and the mood of the space.  You can design the entire event and space in a way that introduces the audience to characters and elements just at the right time and place in order to maximize effectiveness.  Have fun with it!  And never underestimate the importance of detail.  Utilize forced perspective, figure-ground relationships, and progressive disclosure to reinforce the setting and control the movement of your “story”. 

Storytelling in media and print

Storytelling in media productions is a little easier to picture than other design outlets.  But because it is expected, it’s that much more important to implement it correctly.  One of my favorite examples of storytelling in advertising is found in any Superbowl trailer or championship preview.  Look for the narrative.  Think about how the players, or “characters”, are presented.  Watch for the “good vs evil” archetypes.  Who do they set up as the underdog?  What obstacles do they have to overcome?  Look for how they draw us into the story.  The music, the lighting, the color, and the pace are all intentionally chosen to set the story. 

Now let’s talk print.   Beyond the principles we’ve already mentioned, the main thing to remember about print storytelling is to obey the “Laws of the Land”.  I can remember sitting in the movie theater, completely caught up in the 2015 rendition of “Pan”…. That is until Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and the pirates belted out Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  My brain knew the 1990’s grunge song of my youth did not belong in the story of Peter Pan.  After that scene, I couldn’t make myself re-engage with the tale.  The magic was broken. 

This same principle should be remembered when designing print materials.   Avoid any elements that would take the reader out of the story.  Most established organizations have Brand Guidelines, which set rules for how the logo can, or cannot, be publicized.  They set color options and font choices to keep the look of the brand consistent.  These are helpful to avoid the danger of contradictions, which can conflict with the message, feel and story of the brand. 

Tom Fitzgerald, Executive VP for Walt Disney once said, “Story is the medium through which we receive our early learning as to right and wrong, good versus evil, reward and punishment, social values, etc.  Whether genetically based or learned, we respond to storytelling.  It engages our attention and no matter how old we get, who doesn’t love a good story?  Storytelling works!” 

And he’s right!  

Friendships, foes, struggles, and triumphs.  Stories are universal.  Find yours.  And tell it well. 

Christina Hunter
Graphic Designer. Media Specialist. Communication Strategist.