19 May 2024, 08:36
By Richard Prime Mar 07, 2013

The importance of storytelling in design

The importance of storytelling has long been on the lips of any trend forecaster worth their salt as being of significant importance, says trends expert Richard Prime. For once, despite generally taking a view on the cynical side of contemporary forecasting, Richard hastens to agree with these urns of wisdom …

To be fair, though, storytelling has been prevalent in marketing and ad-speak for decades, and was only lately adopted by the 2.0 generation of digital producers – which may have something to do with why it’s not actually been really picked up by the design industry as heavily as it should be. Much like the peddlars of colour trends, storytelling has less to do with substance and more to do with using things which cost less to bring in more for the bottom line.

In marketing circles it works a dream, as the decision-makers feel like their brand has been really well considered when an external agency tailors a pitch or develops a brief. Plus, at the gritty end, we’re talking words here, and they cost less than a new product line. I worked at a company once wherein the marketing department was lulled into a coma by an agency paid over £50,000 simply to add a letter – a single letter – to its logotype, thanks mainly to the delightful web of lies disguised as a story.

But, as with the case above, there are two kinds of story: stories with a soul, like a good yarn told by a smiling old boy in a pub; then the kinds of far-fetched, itchy-chinned stories told by the roustabout stood outside the pub, about not having enough cash for the bus as he lost it on the train. There are stories you believe, and those you don’t and can see right through. The digital world is good at making white lies seem a little creamier, with tales that you are happy to tell your contacts about or send on to someone else.

“Storytelling has less to do with substance and more to do with using things which cost less to bring in more for the bottom line”

But the bottom line is that a good story, whether it’s true or simply suspends your disbelief for a while, is gold dust to the consumer. In fact, before it even gets to the consumer, it’s likely to give a journalist a reason to stop liking other people’s yarns and write one of their own.

In times of strife, like at the time of writing with the euro crumbling around us, the EU hacking lumps off itself and general turmoil, a story is one of the key elements which a brand should be using to give the consumer a little extra added value (that other wondrous trendy marketing-speak term). But let’s keep that element internal because, as consumers, you’re not really going to invest good money in something that has just a little added value – you want something with value as standard.

The best stories always come from truth, so companies should ask their designers what is inspiring them. Take a leaf from the catwalks and haute couture, in which the designers themselves talk their audience through the inspirations and source material for each collection. Examine the materials you’ve used. If you have chosen specific colours, tell your customer why.

At the moment I’m working with a client on a range of colours for the spring. It’s an industrial design firm who asked if we might collaborate to develop colours to attract a specific audience. Yet when speaking to them it felt better to not only create the colour profile for the new ranges, but also show the customer the reasoning – it’s another talking point, something which personalises the objects more than simply a pretty face.

The bottom line is really that when the human is faced with an unsettling future the best way to motivate them is to make them feel special. To give them something that draws them in and engages them. Much like the old boy in the bar, drawing in spectators by the dozen, one of the easiest ways to do so is by weaving a good old-fashioned yarn, based – at some stage – on something real, even if there are a few porky pies woven in.

Example – Blixt&Dunder

Small Swedish company Blixt&Dunder – thunder and lightning – has storytelling down to an artform. The company prefers not to stick to one specific sector so, to date, has released a limited edition bow tie, an incredibly intelligent app to help parents understand the way their newborn offspring see the world – not how you think! – and last month unveiled a small pocket knife.

Each product has a huge depth of thought behind the way it is packaged and sold to the market, the bowtie, app and knife all carrying different brand values, each translated perfectly into little narratives which give the products much more life and meaning for the customer.

The knife, for example, has its own short film, linking it to the fishing and nautical heritage of the town of Malmö in southern Sweden. It also comes complete with a little handwritten note from the designers indicating the piece to be sharp, plus a small hand-numbered bag to keep it clean, with yet more little tidbits of information for the owner. All of the other products follow suit – little well-made films with nice information and facts for the customer to talk about in the future.

Richard Prime is the founder of Oversight, an independent colour and trend forecasting agency based in Stockholm. Oversight offers a new form of trend and forecast advice, geared around each client’s unique set of demands and drawing on a wide range of source material from across the globe. This story was originally published in Furniture News, January 2012.

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