November 1, 2013

Guest Post: On Storytelling in Design

By Sana Rao

Having grown up on Enid Blyton, Tolkein, Atwood, Marquez and others, I find the role of reading fiction in design severely underrated. In the creative industry, one has to face the pressure of innovating every single day, and with a treasure trove of stories to draw from, a designer who reads is never at a loss.

A designer who reads knows the art of storytelling. He knows the importance of a plot. He knows that nothing exists in isolation, there is a context, a background, an audience and an ending. To approach design through the lens of a storyteller makes sure you see what you are designing in the context of its intended, and sometimes unintended uses.

When I am given a design problem/brief I often start by free form writing, I imagine the person who will be using it, his daily life, his problems, what he eats for breakfast, everything. These details may seem irrelevant to the problem, but they make up the users habits, the same habits that determine what part the thing you are designing plays in their lives. I imagine it in its ideal, intended usage but I also bake in conflicts to see the limits of my design and how it reacts in adverse circumstances.

Some designers do this process in a different way; in the field of Interaction Design we call it ‘User Journey’.

After, I’m done with the writing, I break it down into key scenarios where the user interacts with my design in any way, and start to sketch them out either with pen and paper or through creating a rough video. Here’s a video (and a few more here and here) of some projects that I worked on along with a few classmates to communicate the story of the design/product we were making.

This approach has helped me explain even abstract design ideas to people who may or may not be a part of the design community. They are able to see the design being used in the context of normal usage, and once designs are taken out of the sketchbooks and given a face and a story the reaction to it is far more empathetic.  

As a designer the more I read, the easier I find it to tell stories around my work. A good story is perhaps one of the most powerful tools a designer can possess in a country like ours where design is only just turning from a luxury to a necessity.

And so, to be a better designer, go to your neighborhood bookshop or the corner library, and stock up!


Sana Rao is part interaction designer, part storyteller and a poet at heart. She currently lives in the sunny Silicon Valley and continues her love affair with words by being a designer at Twitter. She tweets as @sanarao and you can see her work here and read her poems here. She has also written about her experiences of studying design abroad, read here.

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  1. Reshma Shaik



    The same applies to other formats of consuming information right? Watching, listening. Just wondering if reading is over-rated just as being an extrovert is?

    • Not really, I would hesitate to think of reading as consuming information, specifically talking about fiction here. There isn’t quite something else that has the same impact on imagination. Besides that, understanding a narrative can be learnt through any other form of storytelling- films etc.
      In fact my point here is contrary to what you are saying, being an extrovert has nothing to do with being a good designer, but learning characters, feelings, cultures, stories through fiction has everything to do with it.

      • but of course, that’s just my opinion, that’s why its in the opinion section :)

  2. Reshma Shaik



    I have always understood the importance of learning characters, feelings, cultures and stories in design. Narratives and story telling do play a great role in understanding them and sure enough fiction adds value.
    The part I was speculating about was “reading to be a good designer”. I would say as a designer observing narratives whether by watching or listening or immersing in the experience in any way is of importance. It could be fiction if you like or just lives around them. But reading isn’t necessarily the only way.
    I guess I am trying to say that being able to tell a good story needn’t mean I have to be an avid reader. It just means I should let my imagination flow through stories around me and learn through them.

    • I agree with your point that to be able to tell a good story doesn’t depend on being a reader, I acknowledge that there are various mediums to learn it and observe it, but in my opinion there is no other medium that lets you get in the depths of feelings, emotions and thoughts (and hence a character, his motivations and his story) as clearly as fiction does. See this Ted talk- she has a similar point, I just came across this yesterday, perhaps this will make my point clearer-

    • and it was never “reading to be a good designer” but “reading to be a better designer”. There is a subtle but substantial difference in the meaning of those two.

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