Telling The “Right” Story

An article by David Brooks on June 27, 2014


Last night as I was putting my daughter down for bed, she asked me to tell her a story. On further conversation, she explained that she wanted to hear about the time we went on a boat to the rainbow falls. So I obliged, as I often do.

I told her the drawn-out tale of how we got to the source of the river, and how a magical creature had let all the rivers of different colors come together. There were animals, even giant butterflies, a flying boat, and a unicorn for good measure. (She loves unicorns.)

She listened anxiously, awaiting what happened next. And then, at the end of it, she said, “Daddy, I don’t think that’s how the story goes.”

She explained that she wanted to hear the story about the waterfall that lights up at night, where we went on a boat and there was a giant tower that we lived in. The translation? She wanted to hear about our trip to Niagara Falls last month.

I had spent a good fifteen minutes telling her the wrong story.

It was an easy fix, recounting a family vacation is much easier than making up a fantasy epic for a toddler in real-time. But it got me thinking about how much we do this as designers.

We tell the wrong stories for our clients.

Better said, we tend to tell the stories that we want to tell. Sometimes that lines up with what our clients actually do, sometimes it lines up with what they think they do, and sometimes it lines up with what we want them to do.

It can be as subtle as putting in a serif font where it should have been a sans-serif, or it could be a photo of a Sherpa helping a climber ascend Everest when all that is necessary is a photo of the dog in a park. Story-telling in design is actually rather difficult and nuanced, but people do figure it out if you get it right or wrong.

Somewhere inside each of us, we just inherently know when the story isn’t quite right. We ask for it to be told correctly, whether or not we actually vocalize it or not.

When a business tries to convince you that their customer service center is top-notch, we generally know if it’s a lie or the truth. That’s why we dread calling them for service. If the history books are wrong, we know, but we often trust them anyway as a whole because that’s what society accepts as “truth”.

We are intelligent, even the youngest members of society. And with intelligence comes both the desire for story and the ability to separate fact from fiction. It’s our job as designers to tell the right story, and to tell it with the proper voice. It’s the best thing for our clients and their audience and is rewarded with better long-term results than our alternative realities.

That’s the philosophy around the design studio I started years ago. Our first priority is to figure out what makes a client unique, and then how to best display that. How easy is it? Not as much so as I would like.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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