Tell it with a twist: Narrative Design

A couple of days ago, I went to meet Alexandra Plesner – an agile‚ ‘young creative‘. Neither of us had seen the other one beforehand as we were put in touch through one of her colleagues. A random email conversation told me she would wear black jeans and a white shirt and my brief research about her had yield that she – just like me – had come from a fashion background before she did her Master in ‘applied imagination‘ and had worked across some of the famous London based magazines. Today she also organises panel events for the V&A Connect series, is visiting lecturer at London College of Fashion and the founder of the art collective I Scream Factory.

Meeting a stranger can be awkward or tense at many occasions, but not so this time. We started out with a good laugh about having the same insignia, – A.P. – before we figured we even grew up in the same area. Just like her, I had come to London to do my MA in a course that would not let you go back into the world knowing what exactly would be your job description.
I think neither of us had a concrete idea of where this meeting would go, so we just took our time exchanging thoughts and experiences, shared projects we had worked on and ended up discussing life in general. As time went on, I told her about how I started to design and write about futures and that I had come to the conclusion to call my practice ‘narrative design‘.

So Alexandra immediately asked me to write this article about what narrative design actually is and here I am now writing about how I think every design is a short story. But in fact, I just decided that describing this informal meeting might be rewarding for different reasons: A.P. – and you can take these insignia now as a description for either her or me, is an example for the new generation of young creatives. Most of us started out specialising in a certain field but realized soon after graduating that working at the intersections of various design disciplines would be more our cup of tea.

I am genuinely convinced that there is a need for those ‘in- betweeners‘ since design is involved on so many levels of our lives today: those people build bridges for themselves or make connections on a creative level. I don‘t mean to say this is a new genre, but we struggle in conversations in order to convince others of the need for these hybrid skills.

However, I will actually start talking about the storytelling aspects of design now, exactly because it is linked to designers normally being defined and categorized by the medium they use. You can be a product, fashion or graphic-designer and therefor have a certain platform to showcase your practice – a trade fair, a show – a billboard. But in times of dematerialization and virtual existence it seems rather natural that storytelling is gaining ground in the world of design.

In case you are into reading, you will probably agree with me that albeit the core message of any narrative seems essential, the only way of really getting engaged with the plot is to be kept in the dark about the outcome. In fact, the story does a good job if you have imagined all kinds of possible endings before you finish the last page. Design is quite similar in that sense: if you know immediately how a tool works, the designer has obviously done a good job. But if you see a tool that might actually make you come up with your own solution of how to turn it into an application, it enhances your experience. And that‘s when design becomes narrative. Basically, the designer allowed you to think of different avenues and got you mentally involved in the process – just like a good story. In the meanwhile you will have established a relationship to the designed piece that is uniquely tailored for you.

Narrative design seems like a successful blend between industrialisation and bespoke experience to me: A recipe that combines the benefits of handcraft and mass-production. Now this is not the only way narrative design can work and I‘m far off saying we have passed the time when design was used to describe a function. But whilst designing straight forward tools has and will always be a necessity, new categories arise. It‘s only a couple of years ago that experience design has been an alien concept to most of us, but if you browse today‘s job offers, you will find it all over the place. Whilst there are most sceptical voices out there who doubt the necessity of such new categories, I have decided to embrace this plurality of design. After all and if nothing else this has made me meet the most uncanny characters, people like Alexandra who don‘t fit a category and have that little twist that makes the difference. It does sound pretentious to call yourself a storyteller and I prefer to imagine an old man in a circle of young people capturing their imagination with the simple use of words.  But if I think of clothes and what their actual function is I can’t find anything more important than their ability to tell a story – so in the end, I understand myself as someone who helps to craft these stories and I do hope I can help to collect and create them, applying what I like to call Narrative Design.