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3 Thoughts On: Storytelling

Simon

Simon |

14. Jan. 2020 |

- min Lesezeit

3 Thoughts On: Storytelling

A spectre is haunting the creative industry - the spectre of „storytelling“. If you deal with digital products you hear the word everywhere. This is because telling stories is a basic human characteristic and our brain always searches for narrative structures or it even structures them itself this way to handle them easier. Therefore the method of „storytelling“ uses exactly this human behaviour by structuring content in a linear and causal form.

Because telling stories is so familiar to us you can find them everywhere. Regarding digital products as websites or apps that means for example: I can tell a story about a product, about the way it is being used, about the user, who uses the product or I can also tell a story within the product (e.g. on a website). Thus you can use the method in many different ways as for marketing, user experience or customer presentations.

If you look at that phenomenon from a design perspective the question arises: How to craft good stories for digital space? How do I combine aesthetics, narration and usability? How do I build the arc of suspense? How can I guide the user without restricting his freedom of choice?

1. Against the supremacy of text

Obviously, the success of a story depends on its content. An interesting topic, a clear structure, a comprehensible plot with cause and effect, all these are important elements for a story. But you shouldn’t grasp the content only on a textual level. The overall picture of a story rather consists of the written text in combination with images, design elements, animations, colors, sounds, the type face, etc. To cut a long story short: all signs that we perceive contribute to the story, which we receive. The text and the audiovisual elements are related to each other like a screenplay and the resulting film. The screenplay is the starting point and the essence of the content, but the story only becomes tangible and complete by the audiovisual presentation and design of the written text. The narrative layers that emerge in that way, can for example support, conflict or anticipate each other. From a semiotical position they are equal.

Accordingly, verbal text and audiovisual text need to be conceived together, so that both tell the same story. Currently there is often no concrete relation between both as authors do not care about the audiovisual design and designers do not care about the story. The texts remain the primary source to convey a story while design is seen as decorative accessory. But instead all the design elements should support the arc of suspense dynamically and take the written story to the next level by evoking associations, opening mental spheres, initiating meta levels, etc. Only „scrollytelling“ solutions - mostly one pagers that tell stories by a huge usage of scrolling events - currently establish this connection between narrative levels as they need to do so to make their effect work. In contrast to that the question arises if individual storytelling approaches can be combined with for example content management systems.

2. For the presentation of differences

Suspense is a tricky subject. Am I as a user expecting any kind of suspense on a website or do I just want to consume information in a straightforward way? Surely there is no general answer to this question as it depends too much on the specific use case and the purpose of the website. But if a storytelling approach is chosen it can be expected that a certain amount of suspense is at least desired. But how do I create suspense in a digital environment? How can I interlace the verbal and the audiovisual text in a way that the user feels interest, curiosity and suspense?

The arc of suspense of a story is built by dramaturgy. Dramaturgy again is the architecture of actions meaning the composition of situations and actions within the space-time structure of a story: the protagonist of a story is in situation A and by acting he or she reaches situation B and so on. Actions are therefore the engine of every story as they drive the story forward. Regarding digital products this even happens on two different levels: first by the actions, which are mentioned in the text and second by the actions the user performs (scrolling, clicking, etc.).

To be able to create suspense there must be differences, which can be of any kind. For example the classical conflict, that manifests in a personal difference between the figures of a story. This difference can be emphasized by the design and increase as the story progresses. Or differences in the message of verbal and audiovisual text if for example the atmosphere of the text develops in a contrary direction as the atmosphere of the design. A difference can also emerge if there is something that the audience doesn’t know yet, but the audiovisual code is already foreshadowing it. There are a lot of possible ways to create differences and with it suspense. The point here is to identify, reveal and stage these differences so that the plot becomes emphasized and the narrative rhythm visible.

3. In space and time

Stories always have a temporal as well as a spacial dimension. The events which are described happen at a certain time, in a certain order and at a certain place. The perception of the user works equally. A user never perceives a whole website at once, but always the elements which are in the viewport at that time. That means the user is also navigating through time and space when receiving a digital story. Instead of placing designs onto two dimensional „pages“ we need to arrange them in time and threedimensional space. What happens when and where? What do I need to emphasize? What do I need to reduce? When is it important to focus on user guidance? The story must include highlights and breathers, but no continous uniformity, because then every message dies. And as the goal of every story is to convey a message, the arc of suspense has to carry it through time and space.

A spectre is haunting the creative industry - the spectre of „storytelling“. It is volatile and hard to grasp. But it is also intuitive and exciting. If we want to create fascinating stories, text and design need to come together and mesh. We must have the courage to emphasize differences and fields of tension instead of producing uniform, random, replaceable messages. We need to handle the digital space as such so that its temporal and spacial dimensions can be experienced. In this way the messages and meanings of our stories can be revealed and our digital products will become more meaningful.

Further links:
Matt Yow: The Loyalty of Images - Design as Semiotics
Brigita Bu.: Storytelling in Design
Julian Hector: Storytelling for Designers


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