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.


Dentsu’s Chairman on “The Big Game Mentality”


Some time ago, I had the opportunity to sit across the table, at a conference, with a man who turned around a 3 million company (Rediff DY&R) into a 100 million powerhouse, almost overnight.

Sporting a ponytail, and alive with experience, Mr. Sandeep Goyal, Chairman, Dentsu Advertising (the biggest agency in the world — holds the official account for Toyota, Honda, all major sporting events of the world, including the Olympics and much much more…), is a veteran of the advertising world. He’s gone from the A-list to jobless, and back, in one roller-coster ride.

What made this encounter interesting and heuristic was the fact that Mr. Goyal’s journey began from Chandigarh (I went to college and started a company here) — a small town boy who’s dream was to reach the moon. And, the fact that he shared, with us, his theory of ‘The Big Game Mentality,’ which separates small businesses from larger ones.

Simply put, it’s about how a batsman can go into a stadium, packed with thousands of fans, remain focused on the ball and hit a sixer.

He also talked about how most individuals overlook the very basics. These would include business cards (which is for immediate representation), being punctual, putting in that extra bit, rewarding your team visibly and building an online presence (simply because people want to Google you).

This brings me to an argument of: 1. Why branding yourself is important, 2. How developing an online presence can help one generate more business and come across as a company of today and, 3. Why staying focused and planning for the long term can keep you sailing higher.

Branding is one of the most underrated industry today (didn’t add too much context there but on especially holds true for Digital Product space). Usually, business plans revolve around infrastructure, people and annual projections etc. — leaving the idea of creating a professional looking identity far behind. And, in most cases, businesses hire unprofessional folks to design their logo (in a hurry, and with peanut budgets), and later tend to stagnate, simply because they lack in presentation.

Because your brand identity is not just visual designs but answering the strategic why we exist (and not the what and how), impact intended and defining True North (Read products with an opinion). Branding is going to leave an impression on your customer/user, I suggest you give it the due importance it deserves — involving a brand strategist in the initial conversation can make all the difference.

In today’s date, we’re littered with technology i.e. handhelds that access your mail, broadband internet and — primarily because of these — the advent of social media, we’re expected to be Google ready. People are constantly accessing this new media for all sorts of information. Lets not leave behind the large corporates that access the Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter accounts of prospective and existing employees. By building an online profile, you get the benefits of being available to the whole world and also access networks of like-minded people.

And lastly, staying focused on a long term goal is one of the most difficult as well as essential requirements of growth (think thirsty crow, one pebble at a time). With a clear strategy in mind, all the activities undertaken lead and build towards one single point — increasing the chances of hitting the target. Therefore, in conclusion, grow your brand like a seed — with its roots deep-seated in the ground, and with a single-minded proposition.

Also published: Medium & H Degree


Is India the worst for digital nomads?

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According to 70 nomads on NomadList, India is probably one of the worst places to work scoring poorly on almost all categories. Internet, gays and women have it so bad you can’t help but cringe. Quartz chimes in.

This is fucking insane!

Having lived and worked in Chandigarh, New Delhi, Mumbai and New York I can’t seem to wrap my head around this data. I owe this self-inflicted-debate a fair trial.

Firstly, calling Mumbai’s nightlife “okay” by any stretch is teetotalism two point zero. But fucking partying right up there with London, Toronto and New York is the least of my worries for this essay.

Secondly, in Mumbai, everyone speaks English. It’s the one and only place, in India, where English is the most natural and acceptable way to communicate, with everyone. Everyone.

This data feeds into this perceived “generalised” notion of what is happening in India.

“We saw cows and people pooping on the street and beggars everywhere. It smells bad too.”

Have you seen the world’s most expensive house?


Antilia #365 on

A Mumbai only erection. Case in point.

There is wealth and poverty everywhere, including North America and Europe. The US owes Trillions of dollars. But that’s not indicative of ground realities in entirety.

Data is not equal to the truth. Get over it.

I can’t speak on the behalf of women and gay but how can internet get a bad name in India? Airtel! Are you listening? India practically survives on it. Isn’t India one of the biggest outsourcing hubs in the world? I’ve experienced the days of dial-up and 4G on my iPhone 6 Plus and never did I have issues with internet speed.

Like, never.*

I think I’ve pointed out several holes in what appears to be fairly simple user-generated-data which reminds me of a similar story over at Zomato. I don’t want to be the teetotaller or shout negative about something positive these aggregators-of-opinion are trying to do.

The point I wish to drive home is, as products (or brands), they have to be better curators. Amassing quantity is fine. Quality control is important too.

The bright side being Indian cities score highly on the “Cheapest” list but if that’s the only category you’re attracting I would be a little worried.

*Ok, almost never. But, still.