Designing with Storytelling: Part I

Storytelling is as old as people have been on earth. Before written word, this is how knowledge was passed through generations of human beings. Then drawings and written form expanded the mediums used. Humans were able to communicate more stories over longer periods of time.

Today, we have more options than ever to communicate our stories–video, audio, image, published print, digital print, and the old faithful, spoken word. In a few years or less, we’ll probably have some new options too.


Many designers are good at telling stories of their journey, their firm establishment, and the many projects where they invest countless hours of blood, sweat and tears. In architecture school, we were taught to talk about the program, the site, the materials, and the users in general.

But rarely did we speak about how our project was going to impact the people.

Media and Storytelling Workshop

In February, I received an email that registration was open for Public Interest Design Week in Minneapolis. I immediately clicked the link and started perusing the list of events. The first one was Shelter: connect, a media and storytelling workshop put on by Richard Neill and Lee Schneider of The Shelter Media Project. I hadn’t ever taken a course like this but I was curious about how it could help communicate design so I signed up.

Elements of a story

We started Day One with the basics of a story. First, you need to choose and visualize your story. This can be a story that celebrates people, shows a process, or changes over time. The visuals, based on creating a video, can come from footage you shoot or acquire, still images, drawings, and animations. Then from this, you decide on the story structures–single voice narrator, multi-voice story, or segments and chapters. We discussed interviewing techniques, lighting, setting up shots, and working with locals. We then created an outline of our own project stories and shared them with our fellow participants. One of the participants, Jason Minter, presented his outline for Patranella’s Porch, a project that he just finished successfully fundraising on Kickstarter.

Experimenting with video

On Day Two, we got into the the nuts and bolts of filming. Richard and Lee brought in their gadgets for us to experiment with shooting, recording, and lighting. They showed us examples of work they’ve done for Architecture for Humanity, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and the AIA, many of which you can see here. We also talked about the costs of putting together a video, from a one-person production to hiring a crew, editor, composer, and graphic artist.

It was an eye-opening workshop for me as I have never been into that many details of how to put a video together. I felt prepared to use these skills for my work with Prolasa in Goma, DR Congo, especially since I will be communicating a distant life to my audience.

Telling more stories about social impact design

But I took away something greater from it–I learned about many projects in the Minneapolis and greater Minnesota region that were in need of storytelling. From an urban arts program to Lake Superior’s local fish resurgence to University of Minnesota’s interweb re-design, each person leading these projects was seeking a medium to communicate the vision, relevancy, and impact of their project.

So how do we begin to do this? Pick a medium, lay out your vision, and find the people who make your story come alive. Just like the blogging world reiterates over and over, you never know who’ll reach if you don’t try.

Next week I’ll be going into how to set up a story. Stay tuned!

Do you have a favorite video, song, image, or written work that communicates a project you worked on? Share it with us below!

Image source: Mike Grenville, Flickr user

Want more news like this?

Join hundreds of designers who get tips, strategies, and support on doing more impactful work with the Design Affects monthly newsletter.

Powered by ConvertKit

One Response to Designing with Storytelling: Part I

  1. […] my first post about Designing with Storytelling, I shared my experience with a video storytelling class put on my […]

Leave a reply