on-design-as-narrative-promise

The True Difference Between Good Design and Break-up Sex.

Most design — arguably all of it — isn’t created to be the actual or final experience. It is instead an experience designed to direct us to another experience yet to come. That website you worked on isn’t the end goal; it’s a gateway to another product to be sold. That UX you are working is a platform to house many other different experiences. That leads to another. And so on. We shouldn’t think about design as the final experience, but instead design to create narrative promise; the beginning of story. That promise is a narrative arc to create desire.

The permanent lack of an end-state is not a condition unique to design. All communication and arts can be viewed through the same lens. Bauhaus architecture isn’t just aesthetics but aims in part to promote the politics of breaking with elitist heritage of excess ornamentation. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm wants us to clearly see the dangers of totalitarianism. Documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me are made to have us take action after the screening.

No art worth talking about is just “pretty.” The artist, writer and designer do work for a reason. They have intent that extends well beyond the last page or the frame of the painting. Commercial art forms are even easier to deconstruct; overwhelmingly they want us to buy a specific product.

This distinction between “final experience” and “narrative promise” matters profoundly for how we set up a design brief. To create real promise we start a story that we want the audience to continue elsewhere. A promise that will tease, flirt and ask questions that inspires further exploration. For that promise to work, it needs to signal that the issue at hand matters. This is true for all story: it needs to promise that what is coming next is both relevant and surprising. This is the only reason we stay with the story.

Context is most often how we set the stage for story: laying out a circumstances that give each part of the design both purpose and direction.

On a good day, there is enough tension between context and what the design serves up to peak interest and inspire questions. Questions are far more powerful than answers to keep us engaged in story. Why? Because a story without questions is preaching: allowing no room for us, the viewer or listener, to make the story our own.

Unlike most marketing, real story loves conflict and big questions. If the question is trivial or there is no real issue, why should we care? And if the answer to the question is all too obvious — say if a Levi’s ad asked what brand of denim is best — there is no reason to stick around. But when the question or problem presented truly matters to us, but the solution is not immediately apparent, the void will invite us to play an active part. That is how desire is created, that is the ghost in any “promise machine”.

We don’t desire what we already have. We desire what we don’t have yet.

Desire is always created through withholding. This is the same withholding that invites us to a story, gives us enough room to make it our own and teases an ending just out of reach. All desire is narrative.

The journey to create desire can be viewed as adhering to a familiar three act architecture: a first glance, the fantasy and the tease. But consistently with creating desire, not satiation, the third act of teasing does not end the story but sets up another new and different promise outside of itself.

The films America Beauty and Romeo Juliet are illustrative examples of how desire can be played out in three acts — narratively, as well as making good use of cinematic tactics: light, score and camera movement etc.

This is not a commentary on the male or female gaze but examples of a cinematic language used to illustrate narrative desire.

Act 1. First Glimpse: This is the hook in the water. Waking us up from the mundane of status quo. Cutting though the noise. In films, this is the first look from across the room, that moment when all suddenly stands still. The look we get is never generic. It is directly aimed at us. We are transfixed. Then, in the next instant, it is gone as suddenly as it appeared. We have seen what we desire, what we must have, only to have it taken away. This leaves us to all we have left but what is often much better than any reality: fantasy.

Act 2. Fantasy: At the heart of creative withholding is the strategic void that it leaves. Once we have been offered a fleeting glimpse in the first act, our minds start racing — playing out the fantasy of what the full experience might be in our own exaggerated, rose-colored projection. We make the story our own. And make no mistake, your audience will always do a much better job of imagining for themselves what something might be, than you could ever conjure up with a generic exposition no matter how detailed. Simply being left to our own fantasy is not likely to provide the information required to set up a specific sell, and we must soon begin a more intimate dance to provide opportunity: the tease.

Act 3. The Tease: We have gotten a glimpse, and fantasized about what a closer encounter might be like. Now, we get introduced for the first time. But unlike the hands-on exploration, we still don’t have full access to explore freely. What we want here is a slow reveal — an intimate foreplay that raises the stakes for the full experience and makes it earned. This allows important imagery and information to be served up in a playful sequence designed to keep and deepen the audience’s interest. Not to fulfill it. Or more to the point, to promise another new experience.

Designed experiences are never a static cross-section of time, but several created or curated moments. One leads to the other. The beginning of any experience — just like a story — should never be the same as the end of it. It is a series of related but always different events in sequence, and therein lies the necessary narrative aspect of all design. Story is strategy for design.

It is worth noting that a narrative interpretation of a sequence will happen regardless of if it was intended or not: if something is selected by humans — displayed, crafted, sequenced or designed — other humans will inevitably infer meaning even if there is none to be had. We fear meaningless more than we fear nonsense.

Abstraction is required for all story and art. Without abstraction it is simply reality. A higher level of abstraction will likely help create desire as it withholds and creates positive conflict by definition, and naturally points not to itself but to something yet to come. It is a practical way to approach all three acts suggested above as narrative arc for desire

Abstraction elevates focus beyond immediate reality: users and viewers are invited to craft story to explain the juxtaposition between object and context. This abstraction is in stark contrast to low rent shopping experiences where presentation is eager in its oversharing, over-lit and has the narrative depth and visual restraint of on-line pornography.

Abstraction sets up narrative tension between context and subject. When done right: abstraction brings focus to story: the promise of something both surprising and meaningful. With that we engage. When it fails, it’s either because the abstraction is so far removed that it loses hope of being meaningful. Or, it is too close to reality or simple mechanics and nothing we don’t already know can happen. It lacks promise of surprise.

When wrestling this abstraction balance in design, it will likely expose true intent of the effort. This is one benefit of looking at the purpose of design through a narrative lens: it self-corrects and in commercial endeavors tend to expose the discrepancy between what is promised and what matters. Making money is not a goal one can design towards. Not even great design can make a product we don’t need ever be meaningful. Better and bigger problems are often the right solution for any story that appears weak. And more interesting questions is most often the answer.

Designed experiences — based on the creator’s intent — always hope to lead us beyond what is shown and towards another experience. We are always building promise, and the examples above framed as questions will likely serve most design briefs very well. Story is strategy for design. Creating desire is how we design the of a story. And when done well, avoid the end of it.

The lack of theoretical finality is nothing unique to design or art. Continental Philosophy (Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) argued consistently — in a reaction to the strict analytical movement — that no experience or meaning is isolated or finite. Death, one might argue, is the only finite experience, only to have some German thinker note that not even death is finite or isolated, because we experience it as life in this very moment. And that perhaps leaves us with the only experience that per definition is designed to and can only exist as final; break-up-sex. And that is not what you are designing for.

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For more articles in this series on Story and Narrative as Tool: https://medium.com/@johan_liedgren

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