Storytelling for Good and Evil

Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2017. 9781942303190. 160 pp.

Sarah: I came to Design is Storytelling thinking it would be more about storytelling as applied to designing objects, but it’s more about using the different techniques of design to influence people. And it ends up boiling down to a lot of stuff about designing a product or service or experience people want and want to interact with.
Gene: Like the Chipotle customer line?
Sarah: Yeah. This is a chapter on the narrative arc, and as an example, how you get food at Chipotle vs. at McDonald’s.
Gene: What’s the takeaway?
Sarah: In Chipotle, there’s a defined place for you to go, there’s an interaction that takes you along the line, and then you finish, get the food, pay and you go. In McDonald’s you stand in one of several lines and talk to someone, someone else makes the food, and then it’s delivered to a different spot by a person you’ve never seen before while you’re waiting in an area that’s undefined so you just sort of mill around. The design is not as good.
Lupton brings in a lot of real world examples: how grocery stores are set up, how they draw you through what you buy; how each IKEA is set up…
Gene: The belly of the warehouse!
S: …and she makes a point, people say IKEA is a maze but it’s not, it’s a labyrinth with a defined path that you’re supposed to take.
Gene: Is that the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?
S: Yeah, in a maze you don’t know where you’re going and you might have dead ends.
G: I thought this book was going to be all about graphics.
S: No, the writer is a design instructor, and so in the section on storyboards she shows how to use them to walk people through any potential problems with people interacting with a product or service. How do you find the points where people are going to get annoyed, where it won’t work, and how do you explain the problems in a way so that the solution is exactly this product, which you need. So there’s an ongoing example of people riding their bikes and then wanting to take a bus but its bike rack is full, or a friend offers a ride but their trunk doesn’t have space for your bike. So how do you do multi-mode transportation that includes bikes?
But then she’ll also talk about the storyboard being the product, like an app, that will take you through the actions someone could take and what it will look like when those actions are taken.
And then there’s a whole chapter on the storytelling Rule of Three. In some part she acknowledges that this is based on some particular Western mode of thought and storytelling. (In other cultures’ traditional tales, this rule doesn’t apply.)
G: That’s why foreign films often feel so different, right? Because they don’t use the same basic structure. They feel unfamiliar. It’s one of the reasons I love foreign horror films — I never know what’s going to happen next.
S: So she talks a lot about good design vs. bad design, how to predict future problems and opportunities. There’s an example on future outcomes for a museum where most of their users are researchers but not many regular people. Where did it want to be? A ton of visitors or just a few? A blockbuster exhibition where there’s a ton of folks but nobody can touch anything, or something more interactive. It’s a way to think about the future.
So more and more of this as you read is going to sound like the times your library system made you do focus groups. These are all of the vocab words that seemed so foreign to me as a library worker about how to think about the future and options and all the sort of creative thinking focus group stuff. One of the things she gets into is emotion and how it plays a huge part in our decision making, even though we think we’re rational when making decisions and interacting with things. And how patterns of experience can give patterns of reaction. (There’s a great example about people putting their hands in buckets of cold water.)
She talks about how Starbucks is an experience. If you were just buying coffee you’d buy cheap coffee, but it is an experience of attention and setting and all of this other stuff. They write your name on the cup! There’s nice music! It smells good.
G: Does that mean the guy driving his Porsche is having a better experience than I am driving my Honda?
S: Probably. She gets into this stuff and it starts to sound like mind control. Trying to get you to use things. Making you like them better because of small changes not based on the product itself exactly, but its personality.
G: You mean it works the same but looks different?
S: Yes. There’s this thing about gendered products. Chapstick is gender neutral, but EOS doesn’t appeal to men. Changing something’s color can change people’s assumptions about it. Greenwashing — trying to make a product sound more ecologically friendly than it is. This can just about the physical packaging being green. That alone makes people assume something is ecologically responsible. There are other messages you can send with other colors.
There’s a page of how we find what’s different in two images, what we notice and what we don’t. Affordance. Eye mapping.
G: I want to say for the recording, you’re skimming over a lot of points but this book is full of graphics that illustrate all of these and more. Right now there are a lot of dots and letters and stuff on the page, and they’re making me aware of where my eye is drawn. It’s an exercise in how to emphasize different things. It’s making me think about library displays, and the non-design of them — we can build a great display but it will change as books are checked out and somewhat randomly replaced with whatever available.
S: This is a nice rundown of all of these design ideas, particularly in a commercial context, and how they can be used for good or evil, to confuse or inform.

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