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.

By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.