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Design Storytelling

Design Storytelling

Taliesin West Exterior of the Main Pavilion at Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound in Arizona. Photo: Robert F. Witlock

Christopher Simmons


As far as I’m concerned, all design is storytelling. Brochures and books tell stories in a very familiar way; they have covers, chapters and pages. Posters tell stories in three acts (act one from afar, act two as you approach, act three up close), even logos tell succinct moral tales. Thinking of design as an act of storytelling may help you focus your choices as you work. With that in mind, here are some issues you may wish to consider.

Establish the Arc

Once upon a time…some stuff happened… they all lived happily ever after. Sound familiar? That’s because this is the basic structure of almost every story ever told. Put a simpler way, it can be expressed as beginning, middle, end. In graphic terms — say for a poster — that sequence might manifest itself like this:

Beginning: Evocative image to capture your attention.

Middle: Information about what the poster is about.

End: The action you want the viewer to take.

For a logo it may be just one part of a larger story, or it may depict all three. Try this: picture the recycle logo in your head. See what I mean?


AIGA Enrichment Scholarship Poster A poster with a beginning (image), middle (Scholarship announcement) and a literal end (deadline). Designer: Christopher Simmons, MINE™


My students are working on short films at the moment and even though most of them have never used any kind of video editing software, their biggest challenge seems to be in controlling the pacing of their stories — what is the rhythm that links the beginning, middle and end? I’m surprised they find it so challenging because they all know how to design an effective book or brochure. Just as the pages of a book reveal themselves one at a time, so too do the frames of a film. In either case the designer is creating a rhythmic pace which he/she can then break selectively for specific affect or emphasis. A full photo spread after five spreads of text is a lot like a closeup on the big screen. Find your rhythm, then surprise us.


Taliesin West Exterior of the Main Pavilion at Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound in Arizona. Photo: Robert F. Witlock


An easy method for establishing the pace of your story is through the oscillation of scale. The examples of the extreme closeup or the sudden photo spread are easy to relate to. But you can also vary scale in subtler ways and for various effect. One of the most profound examples of the use of scale for a specific purpose is Frank Lloyd Wright’s entry theory at his Taliesen West retreat in Arizona. The entry to the main building is deliberately small — almost uncomfortably so. Then, as you pass through the initial foyer, the space opens up dramatically. Wright’s idea was to “compress” visitors into the space, then release them into the room. There is no release without compression; no big without small. The experience and feeling one has once inside is dependent on first creating a contrasting experience. It’s architectural storytelling.


Paradox Logo What came first? This story has no beginning or end. The logo, then, is all about the middle. Designer: Christopher Simmons, MINE™


Happily ever after. The redemption of the hero. The moral of this story is. The money shot. Every story is working toward a conclusion. In fiction and film its not hard to guess what that ending will be, so our interest must be sustained in the telling that gets us there. Knowing what thought, action or emotion you want to conclude with is often the very thing you need to know in order to begin. I’ve designed countless fundraising brochures and I can guarantee you that every person who has ever received one knows that the last page is going to ask them for money. The key to making those brochures effective is in acknowledging that fact, and in telling an honest, interesting and compelling story that will take them from cover to cover, beginning to end.

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