Storytelling by Design

Jason Santa Maria is here at An Event Apart San Francisco to give a design counterbalance to Eric’s code-filled talk.

He kicks off with a heavy question: the meaning of web design. We often talk about the tools like grids and typography but we often overlook the storytelling aspect. Usually we’re trying to accomplish a narrative through design, such as a visitor to a site buying a product.

From an early age, we’re taught to recognise stories. We learn to recognise stories from pictures before we can even read. This is graphic resonance. The game Haunted House on an old-school Atari. It’s fear personified, jokes Jason of the pixelly 8-bit images. The graphics don’t tell you much but if you look at the packaging, it sets the mood for the game.

The designer is the narrator. Jason shows the Tufte visualisation favourite of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It tells a dramatic story (and conveys lots of information) through design. You can see more modern versions of storytelling through graphic design in magazines like Wired. They vary the layout and the design direction to set a mood for the article. The design helps reinforce the story. But when these articles move online they are all served up in the same template. We’ve distilled our stories down to content.

David Carson says Design can’t not communicate. No matter what you put on a page, you are communicating something. A lot of the time we aren’t thinking about this and that means our stories are lacking. Take a look at all those Web 2.0 logos to see homogenisation in action. It’s pretty much the same with page layouts. Why are we plagued with this sameness?

Who’s heard people say, Most web designers aren’t designers or We’re limited to just five typefaces. It’s such bollocks. You can still tell a story. For many years, print design also had a very limited amount of typefaces but they still came up with great stories through design. Are we just not trying hard enough on the web?

Jason tackles the same chestnut that Jeffrey mentioned: Where are the examples of iconic web design? asked Armin Vit. But it’s apples and oranges to compare print (or any other medium) with the web. It’s a different medium. Here are things that distinguish the web:

  1. The metaphorical page. When we design, we usually do it on a physical medium like a cave wall or a paper page. Figuring out how to convey lots of information in a limited space is not a new problem. There are always constraints. Usually these are physical constraints, like the physical dimensions of say, a book. But what about a web page? There’s no limit to the height of a web page. Web pages can extend beyond the boundaries of the viewport. That gives us a license to talk more.
  2. Ubiquity and WYSIWYG. A magazine doesn’t change from printing to news stand to reader. But a web page can change. We can switch off images or style sheets. Not only can things change through user input, the designer can change the scope of the page.
  3. Collections of pages. With a book, you can tell a lot about the amount of information it contains just by looking at it. It has attainability and grasp of depth. You don’t get that with a web site.
  4. Layout. is a very valuable tool for layout. It’s a pleasing relationship that’s found in nature. We can develop a system based on it. There’s also the rule of thirds. Books are usually held at the same distance in the same way. That’s certainly not true with web sites when they’re viewed on different devices. Ratios and the rule of thirds break down because we cannot predict the dimensions of a web page. So how is it fair to compare the two media.

Jason has found some sites that are telling interesting stories through design. No one belongs here more than you. Fray. A Brief Message. The Principles of Beautiful Web Design.

Jason realised that he was in the same boat as the rest of us. So recently he redesigned his website to try to tell better stories. He has a basic template but he customises the design for each article he publishes, changing colours, fonts, images, even layout. It’s a simple system for quick art direction. We want to publish quickly online and that can be a big hindrance to customising visual design.

It’s always difficult to describe new technologies. We can always fall back on storytelling though. Early photography was described as telling stories with light. No one needs to know about the underlying technology. On the web, we’ve figured out the technology to a large extent: formats, etc. Design for the web has chiefly been driven forward by technology rather than message. Maybe it’s time to go back and start asking what are the stories we are trying to tell. The form of design should be driven by the story.