Designers as Storytellers: How to create awesome design content

GOOD Design Sarasota!

I jetted down to Sarasota, Florida last week for the Sarasota Design Summit to launch the next iteration of GOOD Design, GOOD Design Sarasota, an eight-week program with Ringling College of Art & Design students that’s focusing on water. The day before I left, I received a request from the tireless conference organizer, Mary Craig. The amazing author and cartoonist Lynda Barry was sick and couldn’t come…could I speak in her place? I was terrified enough to fill Lynda’s spot, and then I found out who I’d be following: Steve Heller. Oh, and right before him? Sir Ken Robinson. You know, only a KNIGHT and a GOD.

My knees started knocking together right then and there, but I immediately realized there were a few things I really wanted to get off my chest and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to designers about it. Here’s a quick summary of my talk, with all the relevant links.

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Everyone is always asking me if I’m worried about being a design writer in light of several magazines closing or shuffling their staffs. The short answer is that I don’t get sad about magazines “dying,” really. (Scandalous: I don’t read actual magazines very much, and I have no real sentimentality about the physical object—I know, what kind of design writer am I!?) Magazines are still just businesses and they definitely need to find new ways to sustain themselves. The industry as a whole has been very slow to innovate; I.D., in particular, was plagued with management problems. But just like when a business closes, it only signifies the ending of a collaboration. The writers and designers and photographers who make that magazine are still very much alive. They will always continue on to do other awesome and exciting things, and thanks to the fact that I can read their blogs or Twitter, I can follow their work wherever it is.

Designers, on the other hand, are concerned because they think that the loss or shrinking of design publications signifies a loss of the value of design. Moving more content online allows us to cover more of the stories we want to cover, more often, with more words devoted to them. And if anything, I’ve seen the value of design go up—way up. Over at Fast Company, for example, we continue to see incredible growth in its website and the design channel is consistently the highest trafficked section on the entire site. So much so—and I’m thrilled to be able to finally talk about this—we’re launching a new, yet-to-be-named site focusing on the intersection of business and design, which is being designed by my friend Scott Thomas, designer of BarackObama.com. That will be launching this spring. And we’re going to need even more content than what we can produce.

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Of course, everyone’s excited about the iPad (I am, too, except for what I wrote about that name). But as many critics have said, it needs new, exciting content to make it work. Well, yeah, but that’s true about the plain old boring internet on your computer, too. We need to all create better, richer content that takes advantage of the technology around us—and it’s not just my role as a writer to do that anymore. Designers, especially, all need to be focused on creating design-related stories. About what you do, about what you see, about what you think. From humorous pop-culturey observations to big ways design can transform society. It helps me do my job better—I can link to you or publish a great essay of yours—it helps you do your job—you get exposure and seen as an expert to potential clients—and it helps everyone understand a little more about the value of design.

I’m lucky enough to write for a bunch of publications that champion designers as smart writers, communicators and critics. If you’re a designer, here’s the kind of content I’m looking for and some examples. You can send me a link to the content you’ve created on your own site, or pitch me a story idea for content you want to create on ours. If you don’t have a blog, did you know you can start one on GOOD.is and FastCompany.com‘s community sites? It’s a great way to share your ideas with like-minded people, and at both publications we often look for community-created content to promote to the homepage.

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1. Write about action, not objects. There was a fantastic set of stories in last week’s BusinessWeek named the Value of Design. And there was a particularly good piece—written by a designer!, IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez—about “Why Design Matters.” My favorite advice in it is “Stop Treating Design as A Noun,” which is another way of stating the focus and name of my column for GOOD: Design Is a Verb. To me, the coolest design stories are about how things happen. Like Jason Eppink & posterchild’s Astoria Scum River Bridge (above) and Richard Ankrom’s handmade freeway sign:  Designers taking action and telling the story behind what they did and how it made a difference. If you have a blog, use it to write stories like this about action you took through design and how it made a difference. Send me the link so we can link to it at any of the publications I write for.

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2. Share your opinions. Right after the iPad was launched, Pentagram published a post on their blog that was the most timely, relevant issue facing designers at that moment: Luke Hayman, the king of magazine design, posted the story “Five Ways the iPad Will Change Magazine Design” (above). This was emailed around instantly and picked up by most of the design blogs. We are always looking for smart design commentary like that about issues facing designers today. What do things like the iPad launch mean to your job, for example? What are some unique ways that you get inspiration for the work you do? What’s firing you up about your corner of the world today? We’ve got lots of designers writing guest columns at all the publications I write for. frog design spouts off about whatever gets them going on their design mind series at GOOD. Architect Dan Maginn talks about how hard it is to design affordable housing. Graphic designer Joe Prichard talks about designing better bike signage. FastCompany.com has a whole roster of expert designers that contribute to the site almost every day. If you’ve got something to say, pitch me an idea for a series based on your expertise, with several installments that explore a central, timely topic—ideally, something in the news right now.

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3. Make important information visible & understandable. If you really can’t write (and I don’t think that’s true, but okay), why not contribute to a major trend in design content: infographics! GOOD’s Transparency series has become so popular that we now have infographic contests:  check out the financial crisis winner and a current contest looking for an infographic helping to explain the Haitian earthquake. Over at Fast Company, we actually publish an infographic every day. With cities and organizations releasing their data in increasing numbers—like New York’s recent Big Apps contest—it’s never been easier to find raw information and make it beautiful. It’s another great way to prove your value as designers, and possibly even help to explain something complicated to a wider audience.

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4. Publish a case study. The sustainable design movement the Designers Accord stipulates that sharing best practices is an important way to disseminate smart ideas and increase positive impact. Reporting on your methodology and process is a great way to engage your clients and serve as a good example for the culture of sharing. If you are indeed a DA adopter (and if you’re not, you should be), you can submit your sustainable design story on the DA site, and we’ll consider it for a DA case study on Fast Company. If it’s a big story with lots of different players and partners, we might even consider it as a series, like we did for the PopTech FLAP solar-powered bag. In the case of something like web design, which hardly anyone outside of design understands, it really helps to explain the value of your work. Case study-in-point: Happy Cog’s story about the VisitPhilly.com redesign. You can publish these on your own blog as well as your client’s site and send them to us. We always like to hear the story about what you did and why.

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5. Spread awesome ideas. Designers solve problems. So solve some problems and send me the results. Redesign something iconic. Everyday ideas like unreadable boarding passes. Funny ideas like NFL helmets (that was Ken Carbone’s idea that turned into a high-traffic post at FastCompany.com!). Or send us a graphic solution to an everyday problem. If you teach a class, assign your class something original and send me the results—we love showing student work. Enter one of the many, many design contests, challenges and competitions out there. I just helped launch a Valentine’s Day redesign challenge at Studio 360. GOOD is currently sponsoring a Spontaneous Architecture challenge for Haiti. Our GOOD Design programs showcase a variety of solutions that solve city problems from across the country. And our projects like the Redesign Your Farmers Market competition (above) not only give great ideas from designers to the city, in some cases, they’ve turned into fruitful real-life collaborations.

I’ve heard this quote a lot: “Design is far too important to be left to designers.” I Googled around trying to find the source and everyone seems to say this but I could not attribute it to anyone in particular. But as I talked about it onstage, Marty Neumeier was in the audience and claimed that he wrote it in Critique magazine ten years ago! Well, along the same lines, here’s my thought: Design content is too important not to be produced by designers. We still need your cool products and projects, yes, but we really need your voices, your ideas and your commentary—and we have plenty of places to put it all!

So send me your ideas, and let’s make some delicious content together!

Update: Video of my talk is now online!

This entry was posted in creating, designing, Fast Company, Good, speaking, traveling, writing. Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://www.visitphilly.com Caroline – Philly Tourism

    One piece of advise to designers looking to blog/talk about their design work – make sure you check with the client first! You never know if the client has a PR strategy that you aren’t aware of. I’m happy to report that Happy Cog did indeed get the a-ok from us (Philadelphia Tourism) before releasing their case study on our web site, http://www.visitphilly.com. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that site and how we announce it to the world, so it was good to have agreement ahead of time.

  • Alissa

    Caroline, that’s a great point! Please do get approval from your client, and they can work with you to make it an even better story! Thanks for your blood, sweat and tears in putting together a great site.

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  • Donna Davidson

    Design should “de…sign” … or surprise the viewer into noticing. We can be shocked into noticing something, but does it further the storytelling.
    Bright colors, naked ladies or guys, gross “your brain on drug” images, war fatalities (like the one in the World’s Best Photos line up), but it’s getting harder to grab the hearts of readers, watchers who desensitized to the extremes.

    So I want to be surprised – in a relevant way – with design that enhances a story, not tries to overcome it.

    How to grab the news junkie, voracious eater of instant images with design? Stop them in their tracks, release them from their spiraling frenzy. This is our job as designers. Design should not become the only story told. The iphone has a great design, but it also had to have a useful story. The color red signals alert, but does the story? Catch phrases, like going green, don’t have to be displayed in green type. Design needs to wake up the audience, not shock, jolt, alert, distract. But to please to enchance, design becomes a partner, not the star.

    To me this is the role of design.

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  • http://twitter.com/Martin_Jordan Martin Jordan

    It seems that the phrase “Design is too important to be left to designers alone” was used by Angela Dumas first –– already in 1996. Dumas, then Research Director of the British Design Council, used it in an article titled ‘From Icon to Beacon: The New British Design Council and the Global Economy’, published in ‘DMI Review’. Hope this helps …