Designing with Storytelling: Part II


In my first post about Designing with Storytelling, I shared my experience with a video storytelling class put on my Richard and Lee of The Shelter Media Project. The first step to every story is choosing what you’re going to say, which in some ways is the hardest part.

Each project has cast of characters that can lead you down a multitude of paths, but knowing your audience and why you’re telling the story will lead you to a successful and meaningful one. And sometimes it won’t be a direct path either.

Finding the Story

John Cary hosted a Social Impact Design webinar with the National Endowment for the Arts entitled ‘Creating a Culture of Evaluation & Storytelling.’ He was joined by Jamila Wilson from the TED Prize and Courtney Martin from Solutions Journalism Network. I highly recommend watching the whole video, as I just summarized some of the main points.

For a story framework, they used Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative ‘Self, Us, Now.’ Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has a long history in organizing unions and political campaigns with the likes of Cesar Chavez, Nancy Pelosi, the Screen Actors Guild, and Barak Obama. He teaches courses on organizing, leadership, civic engagement, and community action research. His history is fascinating and I recommend starting with his Wikipedia page if his experience piques your interest.


Now onto the three story types.

The Story of You (Self)

This first one is the personal narrative that allows others to understand the values that move you to lead. Three questions to ask are:

  1. What was your defining moment?

  2. How did it become your moral source?

  3. What does it have to do with your work now?

By answering these questions and sharing the challenges, choices, and outcomes, you’ll build a stronger and deeper connection with others. These are questions that I’ve asked and will be asking many more public interest designers in upcoming interviews. Shelter Media has an excellent example of this type of story with Eric Cesal of Architecture for Humanity.

The Story of Us

Now we get into making a common cause with a broader community whose values we share. As designers, our process usually involves many stakeholders and a larger community so this should come easy. The three questions you can ask are:

  1. Who is the “us” of your story?

  2. What were your community’s defining moments?

  3. How has this shaped your moral sources?

Here are a few video examples:’s Clean Cookstoves, Jason Minter’s Patranella’s Porch, and the SEEDoc Grow Dat Youth Farm.

The Story of Now

The big picture: this one calls us to act so we can shape the future in ways consistent with our values. We have the opportunity to define the larger, grander impact that we’re trying to create with a wider audience. So ask these questions:

  1. What makes the story timely or relevant?

  2. What is the challenge or choice?

  3. How can you make us the protagonists in action?

John made a great link with this narrative to HCDconnect, a platform for social impact designers to tell their stories, share projects, and gain resources from each other. John’s website and the SEED network are two other web platforms that gather a large audience around a common mission. (I hope to achieve this with design affects too!)

Why Stories?

Since it’s difficult to put quantitative value to a story, we must look at it as qualitative value. It’s resource intensive, but needed for a cultural change. Jamila suggested, “Think of it like investing in development personnel.” I really latched onto this statement because I feel that I get wrapped up in how much something costs at that instant rather than looking at the long-term impact–a very common reaction that we all have. But by viewing storytelling as a tool that will display a larger, longer impact within a community and through the perspective of the people, then you’re selling a bigger change. And one that needs time, investment, and participation in the long-term–much like a development, marketing, and/or sales person.

Ready to Start?

Whether it be audio, text, or video, start experimenting and get your stories down. Start answering the three areas of You, Us and Now. It’s best to start early because you never know what you’ll want to use.


  • Keep a journal or log of your events, conversations, and memories (most designers have a notebook of some sort with them every day.)

  • Use your phone, computer, and cameras to record audio, pictures, and video.

  • Select a team member in charge of this, whether it be throughout the project or someone different for each event.

What’s your storytelling secret? Do you think it’s a good tool to invest time and energy? Too time intensive? Not seeing an impact? We’d love to hear what you think below.

Next up in ‘Designing with Storytelling,’ we’ll take a closer look at tools and techniques that you can use to disseminate your story.

Image source: Flickr users Magnus Franklin and Dvortygirl, Creative Commons License

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