Lies We Tell Ourselves

“…The world is a random and meaningless terrifying place and then we all—spoiler alert—die. Most critters are designed not to know that. We are designed, uniquely, to transcend that, and to understand that—I can quote myself—a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”

“…the main function of the human brain, the primary instinct, is storytelling. Memory is storytelling. If we all remembered everything, we would be Rain Man, and would not be socially active at all. We learn to forget and to distort, but we [also] learn to tell a story about ourselves.”

– Joss Whedon, Comic-Con 2014

This Joss Whedon quote got me thinking about how some graphic designers use the term story. I have seen multiple designers who use it to describe what they do, e.g.: “graphic design/illustration/storytelling”.

Visual communication, visual problem solving, experience design are a few contemporary self styled nom de guerre for graphic design. These terms are accurate descriptors of what designers do. Storyteller is more immediately recognizable but also much less accurate than the previously listed terms. If one is uncomfortable with the term graphic design then the substitute needs to be plastic enough to describe the myriad things designers do. At first blush storyteller seems like a broad term wide enough to fit the bill, but upon inspection a story is a very specific thing. It has an accepted definition, structure, theory and academic tradition.

The word “storytelling” in the context of graphic design is misleading, with the exception of course when the work is actually telling a story. There are specific instances of graphic design that actually tell a story for sure. You can use design to tell a story, but not all design is storytelling. Does a business card tell a story? It is communication tool, it transmits information. The artifacts and experiences that designers create are not storytelling in of themselves they are parts of a story, the architecture that allows a story to be told. Perhaps we construct the narrative if we are going to force the analogy, but we have limited control in the path through that architecture.

Who benefits when we use words like storyteller in this way? My position is that standing united behind a single name like graphic design, troublesome as it may be, has more value than the struggle of finding and a better one and then investing the effort to define it to the public. Don’t we already spend enough time explaining ourselves?