How to design like a writer

Dear design leaders,

I invite you to adopt a new perspective – design like a writer. Intrigued? Allow me to explain.

In the whirlwind of user personas, journey maps, and frameworks, we often forget to zoom out, losing sight of the story we are trying to tell. So engrossed are we in the function and form of our designs we often lose the thread of narrative that binds everything together.

So let’s momentarily detach ourselves from the practicalities and look toward a field known for its storytelling mastery – screenwriting. What if, like screenwriters, we transform users into protagonists and interfaces into compelling narratives? And what if we could inspire our teams to harness this narrative power, fostering deeper connections through our designs?

As design leaders, our role is akin to that of a screenwriter and an editor. Our audience, the users, are invited on an emotional journey. They aren’t mere spectators; they’re active participants immersed in a narrative that elicits empathy, fosters connection, and caters to the human need for understanding.

Let’s take the example of the 1994 film, “The Shawshank Redemption,” a paragon of screenwriting and editing that invites viewers to experience the life of Andy Dufresne, wrongfully imprisoned and fighting against despair. The audience feels Andy’s fear, hope, and ultimate joy of freedom through this journey.

Psychology tells us humans can attribute mental states, beliefs, desires, and perspectives to others through the Theory of Mind. This theory is instrumental in our understanding and empathy toward Andy’s experiences, despite never having been in his shoes. This capacity to understand and empathize is the golden key a screenwriter uses to unlock a compelling narrative that connects with the audience on a profound level.

This notion resonates with the Socratic approach to learning, built on the foundation of observation and curiosity. Prolific screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino are a testament to this, drawing inspiration from their surroundings to create strikingly human narratives.

Similarly, Charles and Ray Eames, design legends, transformed ordinary objects into iconic designs through their powers of observation. Dieter Rams’ principles of good design are a testament to his meticulous observance of the world around him.

So, how can we channel this observational prowess and narrative magic into our designs? Here are a few critical steps inspired by the principles of storytelling:

Uncovering the Subtext:

Much like how Tarantino uses the unseen contents of a briefcase to create intrigue in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ we can employ subtext in our designs. Identify the core motivations of your users, subtly express these motivations through interactions, and align your subtext with the tone and expectations of your product. Share my password feature, anyone?

Stirring Emotions:

Just as Christopher Nolan takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions in ‘Inception,’ aim to create an emotional journey for your users. Structure your flows to guide users through emotional highs and lows, using design elements to evoke these emotions at the right moments. In banking, for example, one has to introduce friction when a user is trying to send money.  

Creating Your Product’s Dialogue:

Your product’s copy is its voice. Understand your audience and craft clear, concise copy that embodies your brand. Use action words to guide users. Write in terms that your users use. Avoid jargon and technobabble. 

Stepping Beyond Sameness:

Sorkin never sticks to conventional screenplay structures, so why should we rely on design templates? Instead, understand your users, challenge the norm, embrace the uniqueness of each user and product, and iterate based on feedback. Work & Co embodies the right approach to redesigning the Virgin America website.  

In conclusion, remember, we’re not merely arranging pixels on a screen. We’re crafting experiences, telling stories, and creating emotions. 

If you have yet to figure it out by now, it is not just about the function. The form is equally important, like a body with a soul. So, let’s weave some cinematic magic into our designs and craft narratives that genuinely resonate with our users.

Your advocate for humans and great design experiences.

A fellow designer.


The Label Game: The Fashionable Art of Pretense

“They say the clothes make the man,” quipped Mark Twain. Well, if that’s true, then the brands must be making a killing.

Picture this: I’m on the phone with my dad, defending my latest splurge on a high-end branded t-shirt, and he’s schooling me on the merits of a thrifty $5 tee. Oh, the joys of intergenerational fashion debates!

Thanks to globalization, Indian malls have become the United Nations of international brands. Gone are the days when you had to jet-set abroad or have a globe-trotting relative to snag the latest designer threads. Now, you can waltz into your local shopping haven and get bombarded with more labels than you can shake a shopping bag at.

This retail revolution has spawned two distinct species of shoppers: the brand-obsessed trendsetters and the proudly indifferent bargain hunters. Both camps, however, seem equally convinced of their sartorial superiority. As Kanye West once said, “I am the number one human being in music. That means any person that’s living or breathing is number two.”

But really, what’s the appeal of shelling out top dollar for a branded item when a seemingly identical version is readily available at a fraction of the cost? Are we paying for quality, or is it all just smoke and mirrors? As Don Draper from “Mad Men” might say, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” So, is brand loyalty just an elaborate façade in our quest for happiness?

Perhaps, the answer lies in our innate desire to present ourselves in the best light possible. We all judge books by their covers, whether we admit it or not. Our choices in fashion, be they branded or budget-friendly, ultimately express our identity and personal preferences.

But here’s the kicker: the “non-conformist” who shuns designer labels is just as susceptible to branding influence as their label-loving counterpart. Like a well-choreographed dance, businesses have created niche markets to cater to both types of consumers, ensuring that everyone’s wardrobe choices are, in fact, subtly orchestrated. Quiet Luxury is winning.

So, whether you’re all about that Gucci life or prefer the unpretentious charm of a local boutique, one thing’s for sure: you’re still playing the game. As Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” astutely observed, “Fashion is not about utility. An accessory is merely a piece of iconography used to express individual identity.” And at the end of the day, whether you don a designer label or a thrift store gem, all that truly matters is how it makes you feel.

In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” So let the battle for wardrobe supremacy continue!


Break the rules or sharpen your pencil.

Growing up, my peers labelled me the ultimate nonconformist, the oddball who didn’t fit the mould, the “tomato potato.” I was like the Banksy of my elementary school, minus the actual talent. But, to be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about what they thought. Who were they to judge? The offspring of punctuality aficionados?

Punctuality and I were like Ross and Rachel in their “we were on a break” phase – never on the same page. So I strolled into every event fashionably late, including school, where being on time was a crime.

Now, it’s not like I was channelling my inner Che Guevara or Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t some first-grade revolutionary. Instead, my defiance stemmed from a simple refusal to follow arbitrary rules. Did I question the fabric of our routines, like why on Earth did schools have to start at 7 a.m.? Yeah! What moonshine-sipping sadist decided that making children miserable was the best way to kick off the day?

So, since I was perpetually late, why not go all in? Why pay attention in class or even face the teacher? Classrooms were full of drab textbook knowledge to be replaced by ChatGPT (R.I.P. Google). So I chose to stand at the back, admiring the fascinating blank white wall and sharpening my pencil as if it were a sacred ritual.

Time flew by like a fleeting Coachella experience, and my parents seemed content. That is until report card season rolled around. Then, the storm clouds gathered, and my report cards read like a twisted fairytale with unexpected turns. Think Little Red Riding Hood meets Miley Cyrus’s rebellious phase, complete with a shaved head and a scandalous video.

As school progressed, I pursued my path of defiance. I was never on time, wore the wrong uniform, and skipped class. I was like Ferris Bueller sans the charm and elaborate schemes. My parents endured sleepless nights, but I did what I wanted, embracing my stubborn inner maverick.

My unruly behaviour continued, and I managed to fail every class the curriculum had to offer. My teachers, especially the one with an affinity for rote memorization, predicted I’d end up serving tea at a roadside stall. But, my ignorance shielded me from their comments like a suit of armour.

Ironically, my art teachers were the only people who saw potential in me. Maybe it was because I spent every spare moment drawing, even in the restroom. But, alas, I was no Picasso, and my couldn’t-care-less attitude eventually led me to abandon art altogether. How ironic, right? It’s my life, though (shoutout to Bon Jovi).

Miraculously, I made it to college, thanks to my well-connected father. College days zipped by like a fleeting TikTok video, but I made some lifelong friends I could trust with my life – or at least my pencil and sharpener.

But eventually, my hedonistic, directionless lifestyle reached its breaking point. My life’s narrative needed a twist, and the director – my father – stepped in. Fed up with my escapades, he packed my bags and shipped me to a faraway land. OK, maybe it was just a two-hour flight, but it felt like a world away.

In this distant realm, I entered the wacky, jargon-infested advertising world, where I discovered that even lunatics have a place on Earth. I’d stumbled into a Lewis Carroll-esque Wonderland, where the Mad Hatter held court in every boardroom. At that moment, I knew I’d finally found my tribe.

Embracing my newfound purpose, I dove headfirst into the chaotic, caffeine-fueled realm of advertising. Like Don Draper, without the suave demeanour and impeccable fashion sense, I navigated the highs and lows of creative pitches and endless revisions.

In retrospect, those “silly” report cards and my rebellious journey seem almost laughable now. But, like Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” My unorthodox path led me to a place where I could flourish, where my peculiarities became assets.

So, here I stand, a proud product of my refusal to conform, basking in the glow of late-night brainstorming sessions and the thrill of a well-executed campaign. My life may have been a rollercoaster of defiance and questionable choices, but I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, who wants to be just another cog in the machine, right?

In the immortal words of Robert Frost, “I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” So, if you ever find yourself questioning the status quo or feeling like the odd one out, remember that sometimes the road less travelled is the one that leads to the most extraordinary destinations.

And as for my fellow oddballs, keep defying expectations and challenging norms. You always need to find out where your nonconformity might take you. As for me, I’m off to another brainstorming session, armed with my trusty pencil and sharpener, ready to take on the world – one rebellious idea at a time.

Oh, and Brian, remember, we’ve got a Tetris showdown tonight!