Thoughts on Narrative in Design

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Mar 2, 2020

Design is an incredibly powerful. Good design can literally change the world while poor design can be forgotten and left to the void. Each design decision should be intentional, because each of those decisions serves a purpose. The design may help to lean into intuition and understanding as indicated by certain cultural contexts and norms, or it could offend the user by misrepresenting something they hold dear. The design may attempt to invoke certain feelings of nostalgia of that one game you played while growing up, or it could bring you back to the scary place that you thought you had forgotten about. The design may challenge what it is you think you know, in order to guide you to something better, or it may just enable you to continue in an echo chamber of agreeable opinions. Every, single aspect of design is a decision, and these decisions cannot be taken lightly.

When I think about these design decisions, I think about what I intend to communicate. This goes beyond what I'm trying to say, but also includes what thought, feeling, or memory I want to communicate. Is my language simple and accessible or is it complex and wordy? Did I slip in a "you guys", "folks", or "ya'll"? When the character of my game shares their story, does it resonate with an experience the player has had? Does my tone bring up feelings of calm, fear, or suspense? Did I use an Oxford Comma? Each of these examples share a an extra piece of the story, beyond just the words that are being said. Whether intended or not, these experiences tap into something personal. It can be disastrous and fly off the rails, or it can enable designers to connect with their users in a deeper, more compelling way.

Words say much more than the words themselves, whether they be in text, audio, video, or in-person. It is the job of designers to be careful when navigating each of the loaded elements, and good designers can take them and use them to their benefit.

I think back to when I tell stories, and the cues that I pick up on from my listeners to tweak the story so that it's better designed for them. Do they have the background on what I'm talking about? Then I won't explain it. Are they good bored of what I'm saying? Let's pick up the pace and add some energy. Am I creating a story on the fly to provide an analogy for a point I'm trying to make? Let me incorporate something or someone relevant to really drive the point home. Good story-tellers and designers already do this without thinking, not because it's a good idea (or good *design*), but because it's what makes for a good story!

Think about something as simple as sending an email, and all the decisions that go into it. Here's just a few questions that pop up for me:

- Which email do I send it from? Personal, school, or business?
- What's the tone of the email? Playful, serious, terse?
- How does the recipient feel about emails? Should I call instead?
- What is the purpose for the email? Informational? Persuasive? A requst?
- Should I go into detail keep it short?
- How important is spelling and grammar? Should I proofread it one? Twice?
- How should I sign off? Thanks? Sincerely? XOXO? Love?

Each of those decisions will play into the story that you try to communicate through this email. This story could even be a reflection of who *you* are, which raises the stakes even higher.

This is all to say - designs and the decisions that accompany them are significant, individually and collectively. I would argue that we should all be thoughtful of this.

Maurice Boothe Jr.
Maurice is a gamer, educator, and graduate student. He currently works as an instructional designer, game developer, and research assistant.