Stories communicate the value of design — how storytelling separates the good from great
What separates good designers from great designers?
What separates good designers from great designers?
Answering this question can be complex given how unique designers are in skill set, background, and interest. One product designer’s expertise can be completely different from another with the same job title.
To answer this question, we must zoom out and ask: what do designers have in common?
- Designers design — meaning they intentionally craft products to yield a particular goal or experience.
- Designers collaborate. They must express their ideas to gain support in building their designs.
In my last article, I explored how craftsmanship builds great careers. In this article, I aim to dissect collaboration and how storytelling can be a powerful tool for improving it.
Last month, I attended a design event where panelists were asked to answer our initial question: What separates good designers from great designers? The most resonant response came from Bhu Kandola, Head of Design at Werlabs:
“The difference between junior and senior designers is storytelling.”
Storytelling, or the ability to craft stories, is a tool used to grip readers and take them on an engaging, memorable journey. Many designers are taught that stories are a great framework for building case studies, as it illustrates our process in a resonant way. Stories help illustrate challenges and solutions in a beginning-middle-end format that resembles fiction writing structures.
However, that is not what Bhu meant. What he was insinuating was,
Storytelling elevates how designers collaborate and express their designs.
How can we use storytelling to elevate how we collaborate and express our designs?
Before we understand storytelling, we must understand collaboration.
Collaboration is our ability to work with varying stakeholders to reach a common goal. For designers, stakeholders range widely up and down an organization with a main audience of Product Managers, Developers, and other Designers. This provides a clear challenge for designers where, in order to successfully collaborate, we must understand varying needs, jargon, language, and be able to articulate our decisions in a way that progresses the initiative.
Designers are responsible for crafting products but also shape-shifting our communication and delivery to have our designs recognized. This challenge is arguably more important than the design work itself as it determines if our designs are used and implemented.
If collaboration is that important, then how can we improve it so our hard work doesn’t fall into a blackhole?
Designer Tom Greever explores this question in his book Articulating Design Decisions, where he emphasizes how effective communication helps keep stakeholders happy, maintain our sanity, and ultimately fulfill our primary role in delivering the best user experience.
Greever says, designers have a special ability to intuitively solve problems, but:
“The hard part, though, is figuring out what drives that intuition. What makes this ‘feel right’ so that we can help other people see our perspective? […] The practice of solving problems with design must also be accompanied by an awareness that will help us explain our decisions to other people.”
Awareness is the first part of building new skills and habits. We must first recognize the space between what is and what could be, then work towards bridging that gap.
Training our awareness can be as simple as maintaining a notebook where you write about:
- How you solved a design problem
- The countless decisions you made and alternatives you explored
- Articulating why you did it, and
- How it affects the user.
This awareness brings clarity of how abstract intuition translates into concrete decision-making, allowing us to build a common language for communicating our designs to any stakeholder.
However, this clarity is not enough to achieve more complex techniques of communication such as persuasion — which require not just understanding but also influence towards others. As designers, we must influence our stakeholders to convince the value of our ideas.
How can we create influence in a way that says, “My designs are better than the alternative”?
To persuade stakeholders, we must understand their world, their narratives, the story they tell themselves about themselves. Essentially we must treat them like users. By digging into their perspective, context, needs, wants, and motivations, we begin to understand:
- What they care about
- How they make decisions
- What they want to accomplish
These insights are key to figuring out where you come in.
How does your story connect? Where do our needs align? How can I make that connection and communicate it clearly?
This sweet spot, this beautiful crossover, is where the magic happens. Where needs align, where both parties are open to listen and communicate, and where win-win situations occur. Like the border between two countries, this intersection is the common ground where you and your stakeholders meet to share knowledge, create deals, and solve problems together.
However, there’s another layer.
It’s not enough to know your side, their side, and the meetup spot, especially if your goal is to bring them onto your side.
How do you convince stakeholders to join your side?
Before we are designers, we are humans. We want to feel inspired, motivated, and compelled to move and be moved.
The renowned author Maya Angelou phrases it best when she said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Stories are vehicles for translating ideas into emotions that influence our thinking and behavior. They are why we choose Fenty Beauty over Hanes, binge crime documentaries, and keep up with friends even in a global pandemic.
This is what Bhu meant when he said storytelling is a key characteristic of strong designers.
Designers can move others and make them feel the value of their designs through win-win collaboration and articulate expression of design decisions.
Storytelling brings people to your side and shows them why your designs are valuable — connecting the stories of You and Me to create a new story of We.
The better we can connect our stories with others, the better we can influence how others value our designs.
Improving Storytelling Skills
Storytelling is a practice that is deeply rooted in structure, rhythm, and emotion, however varies dramatically in personal style.
To learn story elements and principles
Dip into the wide selection of storytelling resources. A great place to start is Nancy Durate’s book Resonate where she breaks down what elements and principles construct great stories.
To build story element and principle awareness
You can deconstruct your favorite stories, speeches, rap songs, TV shows, movies, or brand experiences. Dissect them to see how ideas are introduced, connected, and used to influence an audience’s emotions. The repetition of seeing examples through story elements and principles allows you to build storytelling intuition.
To practice writing stories
There is no workaround for practicing story writing. Sit down and work hard to craft a story that conveys your message. To remove the initial distraction of our self-editing brains, I use Ernest Hemingway’s advice:
“Write drunk. Edit sober.”
I’d only add, “Iterate often.”
To practice telling stories
I practice reading my story aloud to see where I need to adjust. Telling your story to an audience helps pinpoint where to edit for understanding, engagement, and experience.
Product designer exploring life and design questions to better understand humanity. Writing from Oakland, CA.