Storytelling as an End not a Means

Renown graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister rose to the occasion when asked about the relationship between storytelling and design. His response? [“You are not a storyteller.”][ss] (Watch the video to understand his argument, which is frank, and filled with colorful language.) The video was created by FITC, a Canadian event production company, and is part of a series on storytelling.

Essentially, Sagmeister calls “bullshit” on the idea that designers are storytellers: a roller coaster designer doesn’t tell stories, and if they think that is what they do, then they are not going to be very good at their job. The reaction from the graphic design community has mostly been to call “bullshit” on Sagmeister, which, I think, largely misses his provocation: by focusing on our current era’s obsession with the buzzwords of stories and storytelling, people who don’t tell stories are missing opportunities to do what it is their media/modality does best.

As I noted in my original comment on [the Vimeo page][ss], while Sagmeister’s language and comparisons might be over the top, his point is essentially that stories are things made out of words that seek to capture some dimension of human experience, especially the temporal nature of our experience. Other artists/designers create other kinds of experiences, but they are not with words. And that’s not a bad thing.

An architect who creates a space that invites exploration is not telling a story, but, er, creating a space within which many kinds of stories may unfold, because many different kinds of humans will experience that space in many different kinds of ways. And this is something to be celebrated: architects have, for example, a much better chance of creating an experience of the sublime than a storyteller ever will.

Think of it that way: why would a graphic designer, or anyone else not limited by words, want to limit what they are doing to the telling of a story? Shouldn’t you be working with that dimension of human experience that your media/modality most clearly addresses? As humans, we are always experiencing the world, some times, for a variety of reasons, that experience coheres into a particular experience, an experience, that we are later able to re-present to others using words — because for a long time the only portable way we had of re-presenting experiences was with words. But now we have images and video and audio and even combinations of all those things.

By casting ourselves as storytellers, we are leaping to only one possible conclusion of the things we create, and possibly missing the possibilities inherent in the things themselves.


It’s an odd story with a terrible title, but Patton Oswalt’s account of his run-in with a [magical black man](,82224/) is pretty compelling.

The difference between digital and paper? About eight pounds. [Craig Mod reflected on his time spend working on Flipboard for iPhone]( and felt its traces in bits left a lot to be desired:

> The more the entirety of the creation process lives in bits, the less solid the things we’re creating feel in our minds.[3] Put in more concrete terms: a folder with one item looks just like a folder with a billion items. Feels just like a folder with a billion items. And even then, when open, with most of our current interfaces, we see at best only a screenful of information, a handful of items at a time.

And so he decided to print a collection of images and commit messages out and bind them into a book. Lovely book. Lovely idea.

[Digital Storytelling]( means a lot of things to a lot of people. As I begin to think about the course I am planning to teach in Fall 2012 on Games and Storytelling, I am going to need to figure out what I mean by it.

Here’s the working description:

> Games have long enjoyed a place in human culture and have thus also enjoyed the attention of storytellers and writers. In this course we will move from looking at certain historical forms of games to representations of games and game-playing in both traditional literary texts, like Castiglione’s _The Book of the Courtier_, as well as non-traditional texts, like the science fiction novels Orson Scott Card’s _Ender’s Game_ or Iain M. Banks’ _The Player of Games_. We will then examine how game playing and storytelling intersect, as in Italo Calvino’s use of a card game as a narrative device in _The Castle of Crossed Destinies_. But we do not restrict ourselves to conventional forms of literature: we examine the narratives of today’s games, many of which come with “back stories” in order for the game to be played correctly and are, they claim, forms of interactive storytelling. (We will have to answer the question of what it means to tell a story in such a way.) Along the way we will have occasion not only to play some games as well as create some games, with the latter being a possible course project. In order to do so, we will take some time throughout the course to examine relevant theories about storytelling and about games.