Why Design is an Act of Storytelling

December 7, 2019
Salsabila Nasir

Comics, animation, and movies are things that make me fall in love with Visual Storytelling. I used to believe that one day, I was going to be a comic book artist. Since I was a child, I always drew my own comics, with my own characters and with my own stories. I remember how every time I had trouble sleeping I always imagined playing my own stories in my head.

But my mother wasn’t sure about “comic book artist” as a profession in Indonesia, so she recommended me to study graphic design because it offers more “stability”. So, this is the un-sexy backstory of how I became a Graphic Designer. Up until my last year of college, I still believed in comic books more than graphic design. All I know at that time, Graphic Design was about “creating visuals that would please the client”.

But it seemed that the universe offered me another perspective. I met my humble lecturer, mentor, and good friend, Eka Sofyan Rizal, in my last year of college. He shared a lot of his wisdom — all packed under his witty personality — which revolutionized my preconception of design entirely. One of his lessons was Design can be an act of storytelling. Good intentions, Empathy, Context, Target Audiences, Problems, Ideas, Vision, Mission, Concepts are the basic elements of stories in Design. Just like comics, Graphic Design is another form of Visual Storytelling.

Illustration by Salsabila Nasir

I started to apply the storytelling aspect of design while working on my final assignment in February 2018. The project aimed to rebrand the Indonesian film archive institution, Sinematek Indonesia. In the process of drafting the story, I realized that I had a problem. As it turns out, writing skills are very fundamental for any form of storytelling, including design. I was constantly in need of someone to help me translate my intentions and ideas into words and sound concepts

But surprisingly, I’m not alone. I saw many of my friends and colleagues from the design department undergo the same problem when they started writing papers for their final assignment. However, it seemed the campus didn’t see it as a problem. Throughout my college days, reading and writing have never been considered a fundamental habit that we needed to cultivate.

While writing this article, I browse through many articles about the importance of writing and reading for designers. And I found this quote by Brian Larossa on Design Observer.

The best designers add new layers of meaning to the text they shape — they’re capable of imbuing the immediacy of a single word with a narrative. Writers, editors, and designers speak the same language and that language is language. — Brian Larossa on Design Observer

As a designer, we’re also dealing with language. We’re creating a visual language based on ideas that we want to communicate. And from that visual language, we are creating a reading experience. So, designing is therefore another form of writing. This is why writing is a fundamental skill for everyone, including graphic designers.

And every reader on earth, whether the text is an eight-hundred-page book or a four-letter exit sign, is undergoing an experience orchestrated by a (usually invisible) graphic designer. — Michael Bierut in his book Now You See It and Other Essays on Design

By this quote, I surmise many of us still assume that reading is seeing words from books. But, any form of processing information is a form of reading no matter what kind of medium (wink). To give audiences the best reading experience, you must become a reader yourself. To become a storyteller, you must oftentimes READ many kinds of stories.

You don’t need to be a very highly skilled writer. But at least try and make reading and writing into your basic habit. For ideas to be understood, we have to be able to write our ideas and thoughts systematically and tell them in the form of stories. When you write better, storytelling becomes much easier. We can immediately start exploring stories that can empower people, and in turn, create a better world.

Note: Bless you and your heart, my impromptu editors. For taking the time to understand my intention, ideas, abstract concepts and turn into stories that could be understood by other people and also my self. For that, I thank you sincerely.


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