Stories and Voids
“Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Great design moves. In the first part of the book, the internal movements of the maker were assessed as an opportunity for improvisation by using the affordances of formal structures like the three levers as a framework. The next portion looked at motion through the lens of the work’s cultural context. It explained how the world advances by expanding the adjacent possible and shifting culture, and how the motion that surrounds the work should be incorporated into the designer’s decisions through a responsiveness that sways with the work’s context. The motion continues once the work leaves the hands of its creator and moves to the audience. After publication, there is an opportunity to achieve a resonance that emotionally moves the audience, and if successful, the work continues its movement by being passed around and shared. If we’re interested in having the work resonate and propagate, narrative becomes an essential component to design, because nothing moves as quickly and spreads so far as a good story.
Stories are a given – they permeate all cultures and interpretations of life. Narrative is such a fundamental way of thinking that there are even theories that say that stories are how we construct reality for ourselves. We use them to describe who we are, what we believe, where we are going, and where we came from. We create myths about our own origins, such as the Iroquois story of how the earth came to be on the back of a turtle, or the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to man, or the Egyptian Hapi bringing fertility to the land by flooding the Nile.
The scope of these tales is daunting, but the stories we weave need not be grand. A myth about how Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships is just as much a story as a coworker’s tale about their shoelace snapping on their lunch break. A story is simply change over time, and the scale and scope of that change doesn’t matter so long as it has momentum. A story, in fact, doesn’t even need to go anywhere, as long as it feels like it is about to head somewhere good.
My favorite example of a dead-end story is Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. I have a print of it that sits in the drawer of my desk. It’s become an object of habitual storytelling for me, because it feels like it has an inert potential to go somewhere, but it thwarts my efforts to figure out exactly where. All Americans are familiar with Nighthawks, whether they know the painting’s title or not: it depicts a few people sitting in a nearly empty 1940s New York diner at night. Few pieces of art have the level of recognition that it enjoys, and even fewer achieve the painting’s cultural resonance as to be able to be spoofed as often as it has since it was made seventy years ago. Why has it risen to such stature in our collective consciousness? What is it about this painting that makes it so sticky?
We’re attracted to the painting because it is not finished. All of the paint has been applied, but there’s a gap that frustrates the viewer from deducing what is happening in the picture. Nighthawks is a detective story, and like most of Hopper’s work, it concerns a void. What is absent matters just as much as what is present, creating a tension between what is said and what is implied. It’s a framework for a story where everything has been established save the plot itself. The painting is lacking; it requires us to contribute something of ourselves in order to fill the void and finish it.
Many have created their own stories about Nighthawks: Joyce Carol Oates wrote monologues for each of the characters; the magazine Der Spiegel commissioned five different dramatizations of the painting; and Tom Waits made a whole album about it. No matter who is finishing the painting for Hopper, viewers project themselves into Nighthawks and read the image depending on how they see themselves. There are a few touchstones that guide our stories, but so many details are up for grabs. The quality of the painting pulls us in and requires us to complete it, and what we say suggests something about us.
I think about how the painting was made shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. I see four individuals with the wind knocked out of them by catastrophic events. I see eyes glazed by the uncertainty of what the future holds. I see a woman whose relationship may collapse and a group of men who may have to go to war. I imagine mouths unable to develop their feelings into words. They all sit in silence, staring off into some void, lumbering into some unknown future. I divine all of this from a painting, and I think to myself how I would kill to have this sort of rapt attention on anything that I’ve ever made.
Hopper’s lure is that the painting lacks a story. He sets the table for us, but we must serve ourselves. The reason Nighthawks has such a compelling hook is because it raises an interesting question with so many clues, but never answers it. Yet the quality of the painting makes us perceive the answer must lie within. Those questions will be answered, even if we have to do it ourselves. Narrative is a device we use to make sense of unfamiliar or unresolved things.
In my first few years teaching graphic design, I instructed a class called Graphic Design Systems. Our tools were color, form, and composition, and we practiced methods of using those building blocks to emotively communicate ideas. All work was to be abstract and nonrepresentational, and students were forced to explore the potential of purely visual communication without the additional complications of meaning that come with typography, photographs, and illustrations. How would one create a composition to describe dissonance? How can color and line be used to make something look joyful? After a few weeks, I began noticing a pattern in how the students discussed the work. On critique days, when we were all faced with a wall of red circles, blue squiggles, and clusters of lines, students would provide feedback through stories.
“This one seems to work really well. It makes me dizzy, because it feels like I’m being sucked down into a vortex, like I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole like Alice.”
“I’m not sure that this composition feels joyful, because it seems that this triangle is too aggressive, almost like it’s angry at the squares.”
“It’s like a middle school dance. Some shapes are dancing, but the music doesn’t look like it’s very good.”
“That circle probably has bad breath.”
I was surprised by how effective this mode of feedback became to the students. They were having more meaningful conversations about the work by telling stories rather than by describing the formal qualities of the compositions. The students were personifying and manipulating compositional elements in a kind of collaborative storytelling exercise. The students had limited experience in talking about the relationships of form on the page, but they were well-versed in human relationships, so it made sense to discuss the work through that lens. After a critique, the take-aways were always vague in words, but wonderfully specific in consequence. Everyone always knew what was expected after the session, even though the logistics of doing so weren’t captured in the words. Make those shapes get on better. Let the dance be fun, so all the shapes want to move. And somebody get that circle a mint.
Storytelling is one of the most efficient communication methods we’ve devised. Its effectiveness is why so much of the wisdom and insight about what it means to be human is wrapped up in fables and parables. The lessons of a story are easy to deduce, and they foster a sensitivity to specifics and create empathy inside of the listener. All stories, as stated earlier, are changes over time, so if you pay attention to what changes, you’ll find the point of the story. This also implies that if we are looking for ways to use narrative in our work as a design material, all we need to do is ask where the time passes to find the story’s proper place.
Telling a story with design in a magazine or book, for example, is possible by using the passage of time as a reader goes down the page or moves from spread to spread. Slowly decreasing or increasing the line height of a block of text, for instance, tells a story by suggesting urgency or relaxation as the lines expand or contract. Similarly, magazine designers spend incredible amounts of time ordering and pacing their publications spread by spread, creating an experience for the reader as they flip through. After a series of quiet, typographic spreads, a publication might choose to run a splashy design with few words and a large photo to capture the reader’s attention. In advertising, narrative can be created by changing the design of the same billboard over the course of a few months. In interaction design, the passing of time could be implied by the user’s scroll, or maybe the application detects that it has been a week since the user has last opened it, then responds accordingly. Drip email campaigns can also be mechanisms for storytelling. And narrative is, of course, obvious in areas like film, music, and comics, because time is already in the material’s nature. There is an opportunity to tell a story whenever time can be assumed and pace can be controlled.
In addition to conveying information and entertaining, narrative is also a device that creates empathy, which allows us to better understand one another and ourselves. I have fond memories, from when I was young, of how my parents would sit at the kitchen table before serving dinner and talk to one another about their day. My sister and I weren’t terribly interested in the office politics at my mother’s job, but my father was always there, listening and nodding. Now that I’m older, I realize that the point of those chats was to give my mother an opportunity to tell a story so that my father could understand why she was a different person that night compared to when she left for work in the morning. She was describing the change in her over time, bridging the void between her and my father that developed throughout the day. There was distance between them, and her story closed the gap.
Even now, I’m still learning about the use of these conversations. I catch myself telling similar stories about my day, and realizing that while they may benefit the other person and help them to understand me, I’m also telling them to better understand those events myself. We can fill the gap between what we know of ourselves and what is actually there by going through the motions again. Stories become our gateway to understanding our own lives as well as the lives of others.
In 2008, Pixar released its feature film Wall•E. The movie concerns a robot living on Earth in the distant future where the planet has been abandoned by humans, because it has been made inhospitable by an exorbitant amount of garbage. It’s Wall•E’s job to collect and compact that trash. Wall•E’s vocabulary is limited (he’s only able to say his own name and a small set of chirps and whistles), yet the narrative masterfully sustains momentum for two hours. Wall•E meets another robot named Eve, discovers life on Earth in a small sprout, and hitches a ride into space to alert the humans that life can be supported on the planet again. And I’ll admit it: in a moment of weakness, a robot made me cry.
You might say, “That’s the point of movies – to entertain us, to make us laugh, cry, feel.” I suppose these are all true, and that does temper my shame a bit. But Wall•E is a testament to the power of storytelling, because despite the limitations of a robot as a lead character, the film is able to tap into an emotional core. Wall•E is anthropomorphized like many cartoon characters, but he is not a fish, tiger, or anything else that has ever had any life to it. He is a mute, animated hunk of metal with no life essence that has somehow been given such an emotional depth that he holds us – enraptured – for two hours. The audience is able to achieve a certain sense of empathy with Wall•E through the power and propulsion of excellent storytelling. His successes are our successes, and his pains are our pains, even if he is just a circuit board.
Story has the ability to humanize things that weren’t thought to be alive before, and I have to wonder if the inverse is true. If you take a robot and add a story, it becomes more human. If you took a person and removed their story, would they become something less worthy of sympathy? There’s an old story about David Ogilvy, one of the original mad men that established the dominance of the advertising field in the 50s and 60s, that seems to deal with storytelling as an avenue to create empathy. One morning on his walk to work, Ogilvy saw a beggar with a sign around his neck.
The poor man slouched in a corner and would occasionally hold the cup up to his ear to give it a rattle, because he was unable to tell how much money was in it by looking. Most days, the beggar didn’t hear much. Ogilvy was in good spirits that day. It was late April in New York, when the air is beginning to warm, and there’s a peaceful pause before the city falls into the oppressive heat of summer. He decided to help the beggar, and dropped a contribution into the cup. Ogilvy explained what he did for a living when the beggar thanked him, and he asked for permission to modify the sign around the man’s neck. Upon receiving consent, he took the sign and added a few words.
That night, on his way home, Ogilvy said hello to the beggar, and was pleased to see his cup overflowing. The beggar, frazzled with his success, and uncertain of what Ogilvy did to the sign, asked what words were added.
I am blind.
Ogilvy was able to create empathy in the passersby, who would have ignored the blind man, by adding a story.
I love that story, because it speaks to the best of what we can do for one another. It also suggests what we should seek to do with the stories we tell. Roger Ebert described the specifics eloquently by calling the goal “elevation,” saying, “I would consciously look for Elevation, remembering that it seems to come not through messages or happy endings or sad ones, but in moments when characters we believe in … achieve something good. … One human life, closely observed, is everyone’s life. In the particular is the universal. Empathy is the feeling that most makes us human.” Stories with elevation let us empathize.
The tale of the blind man’s sign is also about storytelling. I first heard it from a friend over a cocktail at an airport bar, and he had it told to him by a former coworker around a campfire at a company retreat. Stories spread through a human network, they branch and expand, to produce a hand-off of understanding between a group of people. Each story that’s remembered signifies something noteworthy that has been comprehended, whether it is exceptional or of the everyday. The stories we tell represent bigger things, whether it is a take on the beginning of the world, the bond between my parents, the feelings I project onto one of my favorite paintings, or the connections between people once they are given the language to empathize.
And I think that this gets us to the most important aspect of narrative: the quality of the story is a second-rate concern so long as we empathize with the person it is about and care for the one telling it. A good story speaks to the experience of someone else, but in its telling creates another shared experience for the speaker and listener. The story moves, and with each telling, it keeps a hint of the wisp of the last voice that told it, and retains a bit of the luster of the last shared moment it made.Continue to Chapter Eight