Designers must inculcate the art of storytelling- the Pixar way | Slangbusters Blog
Apr 3, '20

Designers must inculcate the art of storytelling- the Pixar way

We might as well add ‘stories’ to the list of Maslow’s basic human needs.

Instances are stories, mythology has stories, case studies are stories, jokes are stories, brands are the epitome of stories. Why not call good design a story? Not enough emphasis can be put on the importance of stories in human experience.

In recent years, storytelling has gained its deserved attention. People from various fields of expertise have started calling themselves storytellers and it is high time, even designers explore the art. No, I am not talking about creating new ways of identifying the same role, which pretentious professionals do, like a writer calling themselves a designer of words. The objective of this piece is to urge designers to explore storytelling to help their talent evolve.

What is designing?

(Artwork by Savan Prajapati on Instagram)

Just like experience, design is also innate to us humans. This is why all of us have our own definition of design. All of us design every moment. When we communicate, we are designing the words and sentences in a way that it is easily communicative, and delivers meaning. When we walk, we are using the way our bodies have been designed to move forward.

In the world of creation, designing is creating solutions, crafting experiences to fulfill needs.

Good design is often invisible. The reason why this is a fact is that a designer dons the hat of someone who understands the working of a human brain, the functionalities of the subconscious and taps that to make their design seem more natural. A user will not know that it is a good design unless they experience discomfort in consuming it, and realize that it indeed, is bad design.

What is storytelling?

We don’t have to define storytelling because as it suggests, it is telling of stories through the word of mouth or through a written medium.

Today, this definition extends even to design. When an interface designer creates seamless wayfinding, they are telling a good story about how to go through the website.

Stories are about problem-solving. That is what makes us interested in them. But then, so is design. It is about solutions. Let’s explore this commonality a little further.

The story and design overlap

Even this image, I took the liberty of designing a concept and then the graphic designer interpreted it in his own way. This creative is a story in itself. It is about the experience of the reader, that they are convinced of how good design inculcates the art of storytelling to deliver a good experience.

Digital is a medium that can be played with and the use cases are infinite. Experience is at its peak when it involves two humans. Whether it is emotional or physical, humans have the ability to give each other the gift of experience.

Everyone is trying to make digital media more and more user-friendly and why so? Engagement in digital media is something that is deprived of human connection. This means that it stays bereft of the perfect experience that one can have. When it is two humans, we don’t have to put any effort into creating an experience because all communication is innate and experiential in nature.

When it comes to anything digital, designers put in extra effort to make it user-friendly and as experiential as possible to make up for the absence of the human connection.

From the world of Disney

Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story artist gave out the rules of storytelling. Notice how the table lamp came right to your mind when Pixar was mentioned? That is not only good branding, but also a good example of storytelling in design. Instead of having just the lamp in place of the ‘I’ in Pixar, they made an animation which makes it more memorable.

Read the following rules and for the case in point, let us compare it with designing elements of visual language. The best rules laid out for it can be found on Google Material Design.

1. You admire a character for trying more. More than for their successes.

The elements of great design must not be subdued, they must not lose function. Understanding digital behavior includes understanding where to put a ‘+’ mark, and where to put an ‘x’ mark.

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

A designer’s experience comes from doing their job for quite a lot of time. When you design, it is obvious that one has to design from the user’s perspective, not their own.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

A design evolves over time, even when under construction. A great idea might strike when you reach the end, and you must inculcate that design salience from the top to maintain the theme.

4. Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This is a formulaic module that is the essence of most stories that delight. Even in design, some principles like the ones given in the Vignelli Canon or the ones given by Dieter Rams are functional to create good design.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

One of the biggest problems creators and designers face is that they cannot let go of their creation. It does not matter if it took you three hours to create something aesthetic and beautiful. If it doesn’t serve a purpose. Let it go. Form and function have to go hand in hand.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Sometimes, an element of surprise is good to delight the user. Most web design gets lost in the sea of similarity and generic layouts. A little experimentation never hurts.

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working upfront.

You must know of the outcome of a design before you make it. You cannot hit the wall and make a circle around it to call it a bull’s eye. Always define your target and then try and achieve it.

8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Applicable even in life.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

When at a crossroad trying to make a decision, determine what ways you do not want to take. Limiting the number of options makes you feel focused and gives you the confidence to choose one and try it out.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

From fashion to web design, when a designer tries to reflect even a bit of themselves in what they create, it automatically adds an element of personalization in the outcome. Humans are not alone. We all have similarities and we love to relate to each other. Use this principle in your favor while designing.

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

The brain is a giant canvas without borders. It is anything but a systemized way of storing ideas and thoughts. When you feel a little bit lost, it is best to ground that feeling by putting it on paper. It will give you clarity of thought, and a version of the first draft that will give you direction.

12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

First drafts are the love child of stimuli and generic content. A user wants to be delighted and generic design is a sure shot way to avoid that.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

This rule highlights the importance of assertive design. Sitting on the fence has never worked and never will. You can never please everyone and design that tries to do so, ends up losing everyone.

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

The objective is the most important aspect of a design sprint. Without the ‘why,’ you will end up creating it like a headless chicken without direction, which will reflect in the user experience.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Put yourself in the user’s shoes. Perspective helps in creating a usable design.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

There are multiple elements on the screen at a given time. Today’s user is born with crippling ADD and will jump to another tab, or another application within seconds of a notification or a design that is not inviting or engaging. Give them a reason to stay.

17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.

Thought marination is something you might want to consider when you face a design block. Our brains work in a wonderful manner.

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Philosophers have died trying to answer many things, but most agree on one point, knowing yourself. When you are designing, you are the literal machine that is churning out the product. Just like a cluttered machine cannot function, you not knowing yourself is harmful. When you try to know yourself, you are also taking a step towards knowing the user.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

It is always easy to get your way out of putting more thought by just applying the same formula that worked somewhere else. Aligning the design throughout is another thing and reapplying structures everywhere is a different thing. Know the difference, and always deliver quality.

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Multiple pictures make multiple senses when looked at individually. When put together, they can give a different meaning.

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Read rule 15 again.

22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

The vision always remains at the center. If defined properly at the beginning of starting the design process, it will help you find direction in case you deviate from the goal of that design.

These rules were released by Pixar in an article on No Film School.

Paul Rand once said, “Design is so simple, that is why it is so complicated.” That is the same with humans and human experiences. Communication is as innate as it can be. We still find ourselves in situations where we are speechless. Always remember, good design always comes from the heart. And stories touch the heart like no other.

Head on to our blog page to read more of such stories. We are on a mission to make branding inclusive for the brand owners. We love making brands and we always make them with heart. Contact us now, if you have a project, or if you just want to chat.

— by Manas, Content Strategist, Slangbusters Studio

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