Tell me a story

I once saw a video that made a good point of the difference between our modern understanding of God and the understanding of the ancient Hebrews. To the modern mind, God is perceived in bullet-point terms: God is almighty, or God is omnipotent. But to the Hebrews, God was a rock, or God was my shepherd, or God was living water. The difference is not small.

The modern mind thinks in terms of data: “The storm was third wettest in 1996.” But the ancient mind thought in terms of story: “I will send you rain in its season.”

Larry King once asked Ed Bradley if he could explain the longevity of CBS’ 60 Minutes, the most successful program in television history. Mr. Bradley replied that it was because founder Don Hewitt’s guiding directive had been, “Tell me a story.” So storytelling (Once upon a time . . .), not reporting (Heat wave claims six), is what 60 Minutes has always done.

A novel is nothing but story.

A movie is nothing but story, either. And to see it, we spend millions.

One gets the impression watching the news that data is what matters (Rogers’ QB rating is 129). But data is mainly for statisticians, and not real. Story is how human beings actually experience life.

And what is a story? It’s a life lived. Story is about risk and hope and fear and struggle and love and loss. It’s about heart and soul and the real reasons behind things.

What’s all this have to do with design?


As a designer, what are you doing on your sheet of paper or screen? Why are you involved? What’s your role?

You may say that you want your page/product/idea to “look good.” And, of course, looking good is preferable to looking bad. But what do you actually mean?

What you should mean is that there’s a story to be told, and that your part is its visual expression. “Looking good” says blue and green go well together. The story is in what blue and green together say.

I’ve placed a familiar object at the bottom of this page. It’s simple, symmetrical, balanced. You’d say that it looks good. But I did something funny: I moved its shadow. Now it’s floating, or so it appears. How can that be? We rub our eyes. Maybe it’s falling. No clues are given.

To leave the question unanswered is to begin a story. The reader’s engaged. He’ll look for what’s next. That’s what you want.

Think about this. That typeface you’re using  — why that one? Its form might be voluptuous or ratty or rigid. Each in context could be correct and beautiful — or not. White space can be a pause, a break in time. It can also organize, separating this from that. It can convey purity, vastness, emptiness, desolation — each different, dependent on context.

In evaluating your design, before asking, “Does it look good?” ask, “What story is it telling?”

Design — visual expressiveness — is not something plotted on a chart, measured, compiled, compared. It is, rather, the face of life, a window to the soul beneath.

This article was originally published in Before & After issue 36, page 16. It’s available in print and on the Master Collection DVD.

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30 Responses to Tell me a story

  1. Amber says:

    Helping clients think about what story they want to tell through design is one of my biggest challenges. I ask “what do you want to say, and who is your audience?” in several different ways, and still sometimes get answers like, “we like the color blue” and “make it look like a knockoff of ______.” Speaking to your first example, you’d think my church clients, who are familiar with this idea of “story,” would understand this, but they often don’t.

  2. Abbey says:

    Terrific post! My background is in journalism and public relations, but as a one-woman show, I’m often called on to orchestrate design projects. Your advice is akin to what I would expect to hear from writing coaches. It is exactly on the mark and expressed very clearly with a great example that brings home what you’re saying. I would have expected to read this article in a writing newsletter, and the fact that you’ve tied it to design shows what a master you are at your craft. Keep up the good work.

  3. Minu says:

    I’ve been looking for a good way to define or describe “design,” and I like the words — visual expressiveness. In just a couple of words, it says it all.

    And Amber, I agree it is difficult at times to get the concept of telling a story across to clients. Some clients already come with a pre-conceived idea or color choice and have their minds set on it. I guess that is where we have to become more persuasive. But sometimes it’s difficult.

  4. vva says:

    this post couldn’t have been more timely. i’m working on a huge video project for the president of my company; she is being honored by a university with a very prestigious award. the award previously was given to a former secretary of defense, a cardinal (no, not the baseball team), and a u.n. secretary general. it is the first time i’ve ever done anything like this, and it’s more than pulling together all the pieces, pictures, interviews, but it is more about — as you’ve pointed out — compiling these things to tell a story. i will look at my project with this thought in the foreground of my mind — thank you + happy friday!

  5. Kenton Glick says:

    That’s a fascinating way to sum up a core reality of advertising. There’s a lot of “data clutter” people want to advertise about, probably a holdover from our rationalistic, 19th-century education system. But the most successful advertisers are the ones who discover what the story is and tell that. Thanks for the reminder.

    • JR says:

      This discussion reminds me of Apple and how they sell their products. It’s not just a cloud network that connects all your devices. With the visuals, background music, etc. that they show, they make it seem like you’re connecting the pieces of your life. I’m not even an Applelite and I see it.

  6. Tamara Smith says:

    Thought-provoking post, John. Thank you! All stories are made of elements that can be used to trigger associations without having to put the entire story on the page. Breaking it down even further, these elements have identifying features that can stand in place of using the entire element. For example, when designing a take-out menu for a small, neighborhood cafe, a striped awning at the top of the page is an element that strongly suggests this type of restaurant, which in turn triggers images of the type of food and atmosphere the viewer could expect to find there. To simplify the image further, identifying and using just the stripes as the feature that makes an awning recognizable may be enough to trigger the same associations and thus tell the whole “story.”

  7. Brett says:

    Just to look at this from a slightly different angle, there is a quote from Ursula Le Guin that I love: “Story is the only boat we have for sailing on the river of time.” I hope I have that right!

  8. Karen Floyd says:

    Thank you, John.

    You remind me of one of my favorite ministers . . . He would read a passage and then tell the “real” story. He would take us to the time of the story, tell what the mindsets of the people were, what this word meant to them, or what that saying implied in their time. Next, he would dive into what the truth of the context of the story meant or didn’t mean, and what that consequently could mean to us now. That minister would take something simple and explore five, six or even seven layers deeper than I could have ever thought to go, to give such a rich, comprehensive picture that I couldn’t help but take it with me into the world. Simply incredible. I find you do that in your seven-layer design discussions. Perhaps you are the “Minister of Design”! Thanks for bringing the Light.

  9. Nathan Johnson says:

    I work as a producer for a large church with the primary responsibility of crafting the content — musical, graphical, dramatic and otherwise — into a cohesive whole. Your blog post is so applicable to every creative genre, and it speaks so well to the challenge of evaluating effectiveness. Often, evaluative discussion centers on execution (the song was well-played, the graphic design came in on deadline, the drama hit its marks) as opposed to the much harder and subjective value of whether or not it contributed to providing context to a larger, cohesive whole. Stepping back and asking that question is so much more important than the details of execution, yet it is so often skipped due to lack of time or energy. Yet it truly is what makes any creative work significant and impactful in the long term.

    • John McWade says:

      Well said. The irony is that in dealing with life as a checklist (“well-played, came in on deadline, hit its marks,” etc.) and skipping the real issue, we are, literally, and without even realizing it, missing our own lives, the actual reason we do things. Results in a lot of vague (and unnecessary) emptiness.

  10. The barbell actually bounced when it struck the floor, missing Peter’s feet by inches. His eyes were glued on the scoreboard, waiting for the official confirmation of what he already knew; it was a perfect snatch.

  11. SuzyR says:

    Wonderful post, John. “Tell the story” somehow reminds me of that old copywriting advice: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. After all, the sizzle is the story.

    I’m thinking of the Apple logo. At its core (sorry), it contains so many stories. Apple pie at Grandma’s. Fresh apple cider from the cider mill on a crisp autumn day. The crunch of an apple as you bite into it. Applesauce. With all of that going for it, it seems to me Apple was almost destined to create products that people lust for and can’t wait to own.

    Well-crafted design is, as you so aptly said, “…the face of life, the window to the soul beneath.” It’s the story we can’t wait to hear; it lights us up, and brings us back for more.

  12. G A Breslau says:

    Thank you for giving me a chance to see pure. I will think how this will lead me to bring it to the next project. Your story with this barbell makes me THINK. Thanks, professor.

  13. Nancy Jones says:

    This is the best one I’ve read so far. Storytelling is almost a lost art. I like to design my pictures with so much depth (and action when I can, even when the action is as quiet as a gentle breeze) that the picture draws you into it . . . [a picture without words with harmony] . . . My favorite piece I’ve done lately was a Christmas card with the 150-year-old county courthouse in a glass snow globe with the founding date of the county on the bottom (on a table with colorful lights out of focus). I was told to “make me a Christmas card” by an intelligent man who knows how to “let professional people do what professional people do.” Sometimes we hire professional people and try to tell them how to do their jobs instead of asking them what they think and draw on their lifetime of experience in the field. My Christmas card is a keepsake now. I put type on the front, “Some things stand the test of time . . .” just to simulate the type area, and he left it as is. It meant the county courthouse (architecturally beautiful as it is and all it stands for) is still here after 150 years, which lead into a sentence from Luke at the top of the inside implying Christianity has also stood the test of time.

  14. A lot of designers fill a page. Few use the page as a window or stage to tell a story that began off stage on stage right and will continue well past stage left.

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  17. Yvonne Root says:

    A real-life example of this type of thinking also comes from any of Disney’s themed parks. From the ads to the parks, every ounce of Disney is designed to help one experience “the happiest place on earth.”

    When, a few years ago, we were able to spend a week on Disney property, we came face to face with the quality Walt Disney wanted to express. From the gardener at our time-share condo who asked with sincerity if there was anything he could do to make our stay better, to the constant and unobtrusive cleaning of all spaces, to the cartoonish yet comprehensible maps and so on and so on, Disney does it right.

    Oh yeah, the rides and the shows are great too. :-)

  18. David Kunkel says:

    “You see!” exclaimed the professor, his goggles flashing reflections of the violet glow all around the darkened lab. “I have completely nullified gravity within the chamber! Now all I have to do is increase the power…”

    A sudden, cracking sound interrupted him as the walls of the steel cylinder began to warp inward, collapsing in on itself. Horrified, I redoubled my efforts to loosen my bonds.

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  20. Judy says:

    This is something I truly related to. I will be passing this on to may marketing co-workers.

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  23. Tony Nasch says:

    As an independent filmmaker, I have often relied on the premise “that story is everything.” A brand needs to somehow shout from the mountaintops, “We are relevant!” in its own voice.

    Sometimes clients confuse “story” with “voice”. . . and that’s a challenge. Then I borrow from David Mamet’s, On Directing Film, a book which, ironically, has nothing to with the craft. It’s a great short read on the importance of story, and how well-defined action will lead your audience to stay aboard: keep your actors (design) in a dynamic state. And my favorite anchor: setting up context so that content has a purpose, a close cousin to how data v. story was broken down in McWade’s article . . . great stuff!

  24. Tony Nasch says:

    One more thing (“Just one more take . . . !”). I have found that using an omission trick works when flushing out story with a client. As I prepare to drill down to what they want to say, what points to hit and how, I quickly counter after every time they respond with, “Okay, so you want to tell this “story” all in color? Does that mean no monochrome?” By having them see the other side of the coin, it can really get a client to think from other vantage points.

  25. Shanika Journey says:

    Because of my love for comic books and animation growing up, I was always taught that every line drawn for both is meant to bring a story to life. It helps orchestrate the bigger meaning behind why it’s there, the plot, even the emotions that each character shares with its audience. I’ve watched and practiced what they did for years, and it’s still amazing how fast an illustration, design, or animation can captivate an audience if everything is done right. This is a wonderful article to remind graphic artists just how important it is for any graphic design to tell a story that an audience will continue to read or hear.

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