Storytelling as an End not a Means

Renown graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister rose to the occasion when asked about the relationship between storytelling and design. His response? [“You are not a storyteller.”][ss] (Watch the video to understand his argument, which is frank, and filled with colorful language.) The video was created by FITC, a Canadian event production company, and is part of a series on storytelling.

Essentially, Sagmeister calls “bullshit” on the idea that designers are storytellers: a roller coaster designer doesn’t tell stories, and if they think that is what they do, then they are not going to be very good at their job. The reaction from the graphic design community has mostly been to call “bullshit” on Sagmeister, which, I think, largely misses his provocation: by focusing on our current era’s obsession with the buzzwords of stories and storytelling, people who don’t tell stories are missing opportunities to do what it is their media/modality does best.

As I noted in my original comment on [the Vimeo page][ss], while Sagmeister’s language and comparisons might be over the top, his point is essentially that stories are things made out of words that seek to capture some dimension of human experience, especially the temporal nature of our experience. Other artists/designers create other kinds of experiences, but they are not with words. And that’s not a bad thing.

An architect who creates a space that invites exploration is not telling a story, but, er, creating a space within which many kinds of stories may unfold, because many different kinds of humans will experience that space in many different kinds of ways. And this is something to be celebrated: architects have, for example, a much better chance of creating an experience of the sublime than a storyteller ever will.

Think of it that way: why would a graphic designer, or anyone else not limited by words, want to limit what they are doing to the telling of a story? Shouldn’t you be working with that dimension of human experience that your media/modality most clearly addresses? As humans, we are always experiencing the world, some times, for a variety of reasons, that experience coheres into a particular experience, an experience, that we are later able to re-present to others using words — because for a long time the only portable way we had of re-presenting experiences was with words. But now we have images and video and audio and even combinations of all those things.

By casting ourselves as storytellers, we are leaping to only one possible conclusion of the things we create, and possibly missing the possibilities inherent in the things themselves.


3 thoughts on “Storytelling as an End not a Means

  1. Crafted Stories | Stefan Sagmeister Says You're Not a Storyteller - Crafted Stories

  2. I am 99% sure that he’s referring to a presentation I gave at Gamification Summit 2012 called “Writing Rollercoasters”:

    While I kind of get his point, he’s completely missing mine (which is closer to what your response entails). My presentation describes stories as the tools of creating emotion, and that the brilliance of places like the Disney parks is how they take the mechanics of amusement (like spinning carnival rides and coasters) and transform them with the context and emotion of story (like flying with Dumbo or bobsledding the Matterhorn).

    I could never write a novel. But my work uses the tenets of story to create physical places that immerse visitors in a narrative. I know nothing of Mr. Sagmeister or his work, but would love to have a spirited debate with him about how story can take many forms. 🙂

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