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.


Data Visualization Design Tips

_Nature_ has compiled several dozen of its “Points of View” columns into a [single list][] that, if you were to work through it, be a reasonable introduction to graphic design. As I’ve said before, [design matters][], so if all of that overwhelms you, then please do consider working with someone who has some experience in design. All your efforts to communicate your data and your analysis more effectively will provide a return, if only because you will undoubtedly glimpse new patterns, new possibilities for analysis while doing the design.

And, for the record, I like the architectural word *projection* better than *visualization*, which is probably still better than *infographic*.

[single list]:
[design matters]:

The Anne Mayfield Archive of Graphic Design

This graphic design archive from the forties and fifties is the direct result of my great aunt’s impeccable collecting of diverse materials from her life and preserving them in carefully arranged boxes and drawers. In the final years of her life, she shared a number of these items with me, and, in tribute to her, I have begun to scan them and upload them to an archive named in her honor. All copyrights, where there are any, reside with the original owners, but for those, like me, interested in the history of graphic design and also interested in historical artifacts as inspiration for innovation in the present, I hope this collection proves useful.


[The complete set is on Flickr](

Thank you, Aunt Anne. (If you want to know more about her, here is [my eulogy]( from nine years ago.)

In an era of bar codes and QR codes, it’s nice to remember that labels were once meant for human eyes:


The complete set of airline labels from times gone by is [here](