The Story behind these stories

The difficult premise about this project, is that we need to start off with an admission. There’s no intended malice, indeed, this project stems from a desire to simply do better. And yet, we still find it hard to say.

But, deep breath, we’re all grown-ups, so there’s no need for sugar coating.

We can’t tell great stories.

There, we said it.

And if you’re a design student, we think you can’t tell great stories either, yet.

We’re two graduate students at OCAD University, and we’ve just finished the first-year of the MDes program in Strategic Foresight & Innovation.

Each course builds towards an end of term presentation, typically a group presentation, where the group presents their research findings, their proposed design intervention and potential benefits and roadblocks.

Four courses, four opportunities, and yet, we all fall into a familiar trap. This is an academic presentation – it has to be serious and full of rigour.

And so it happens. Even though they are the culmination of four months work, the presentations often wash over us and we find ourselves asking “who cares?”

“Who cares?” Could we really be that callous?

Yes, there’s often a great use of graphics, even some multimedia thrown in, we can see the amount of research that has gone into each presentation, and we connect to the effort of our peers, but there’s just no story to these presentations. We don’t feel connected to the research stories that are being told and, perhaps most importantly, we’re not asking ‘what’s next?’, let alone be compelled into some sort of action. We asked ourselves, what if we fail to make an impact because our presentations are forgettable?

Truthfully, these feelings aren’t limited to just one end of term presentation day. We’ve felt this way before. Sat through too many powerpoint presentations and wondered “why are we here? what is the point of this presentation?” 

And so begins the inkling of an idea. A premise that story and storytelling is essential to the design process.

Over the past few months, we’ve been exploring the following initial thought:

At the very heart of any design program, is the desire to enact meaningful, human-centred change. To work across systems, not in silos, and to create holistic interventions that will be embraced and built upon. The need to connect with people and move people is inherent within any change process. Storytelling is an untapped resource for many design students and a core requirement of many academic assessments and future professional engagements with clients. Story and storytelling are inherent characteristics of an authentic and effective designer.

We’ve been inspired by the work of Annette Simmons, who aptly summarizes our feelings around the use of story. Here, Simmons is referring to business users, but we could readily imagine this quote for designers…

“(my book) solves what I call the “why business people suck at storytelling” problem.  Most of us in business are conditioned to believe that business communication must be clear, rational, and objective.  If that is true, there is no place for emotion or personal connection. Sharing a personal story, telling a story that makes a complex idea simple, or transforming an implementation plan into a living breathing future – that’s the secret to motivation.”

Annette Simmons

Our storytelling and Design explorations

In many Graduate level programs that are focused on Design and Innovation, students aren’t necessarily coming from undergraduate programs in design fields. Subsequently, there are knowledge and skills gaps, which include visual thinking/graphic communications, and storytelling.

We’re striving to explore storytelling as more than a presentation tool. Yes, the need for story, to convey the nuances of a design intervention and the stories of who we’re designing for, is an essential component of our explorations (it’s what’s frustrated us in the first place!), but we’re also investigating the belief that storytelling should be an inherent and iterative part of the entire design process.

We believe the design is in the service of others. That’s why we do, what we do.

To improve the design process, we imagine storytelling becoming a reflective practice in framing, sensemaking and prototyping. Too often, we still rush from design research to a concept and then onto a presentation. We’re taken with the idea that we need to , essentially, spend more time with stories. Storytelling, story gathering and of course, listening, should be embedded within our design practices.

We realize that it’s not as simple as the following equation, but we’ve been using this as a guiding light, as a reminder that storytelling is an essential practice, one that can manifest true change.

Story + Design = Innovation

Our Guide to Story

We are indebted to the wisdom, generosity and curiosity of Professor Nick Goso. Nick has been our guide during this project, sharing his own stories of design practices and encouraging us to always dig a little deeper and to consider a broad range of influences, from Aristotle to Neil Gaiman.

We are grateful for all of the time that was given and the weeks of encouragement – Thank you Nick!

Nathalie Robertson & Doug Reid