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Spinning Form: How to Tell Stories with Product Design
By Scott Klinker

Photo: Ragnheidur Sigurdardottir Cranbrook Design Student

I have a few friends that are tragic slaves to fashion. But for me, it's more sad to see how many industrial designers are trained to be slaves to function. While both extremes may be tragic, I've always wondered why the fashion designers seem to have all the fun. Why has fashion managed to tell so many stories, and industrial design so few?

Design today is not neutral. It is biased and targeted at specific audiences based on emotional triggers that have a specific form. Don't be timid about it.

Well that may be changing as more product designers see the value of storytelling as a tool for creating form and delivering new product experiences. 'Designer as Author' is an emerging concept in education that seeks to fill this cultural void—where products are not slaves to function, where sometimes Form follows Art, where products can be ideas first and utility second, where new stories lead the market—not follow it, and where design proposals introduce alternative social values into pop culture.

Think you might have that mutant design author gene in your DNA? Then you may need some new tools. Here's six introductory tips for getting the story into the form.

Play with Words

Wordsmiths have long been able to deliver complex ideas about the human condition with simple emotional stories. Language is the starting point for any design process; words define your goals and often determine the results. Inventive keywords can help you reposition the product to breach new categories. Literature is full of theoretical tools like deconstruction for the designer who learns to play with language to build meaningful forms, intellectual positions, and experiences.

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is one of my favorite examples of design thinking. In this remarkable collection of short stories, Marco Polo recounts his visits to a series of fictitious cities, each with a bizarre culture that has given rise to a equally warped urban plan. The reader is invited to visualize these fantastic worlds, each carefully rendered only in words to illustrate how culture defines form and form makes culture.

Know your Genre

Why can't design be more diverse like literature, with a variety of genres? Could we have a tragic design? A comic design? A critical design? A satirical design? Instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of mass production, the logic of niche markets opens space for an array of new emotional formats. Is your authorship more like poetry or prose? Each of these voices has a corollary in literature with its own structure and discourse. Get to know that discussion to explore how it can intersect with product form.

Design discourse is also its own genre, with a history full of examples from these literary influences. Survey the field before you enter these discussions. Where does the Memphis or Droog Design fit into these genres? Inform your approach with examples from the past.

Of course, the functional context of your product is essential—the more traditional who, what, when, where and how of design research. A design author tunes into to the emotional and psychological issues at stake here.

Fit our time

Choose subjects that readers (/users) care about. Ask yourself, why THIS subject NOW? Some subjects are charged with contemporary relevance, others aren't. Current issues that are loaded with controversy or debate usually get attention, as they help readers make sense of the social or moral values at stake in our designed environment. Keep in mind that you are a form giver and not an anthropologist. How are these topics manifested in form? When Al Gore shows NYC flooded by climate-changed seas, it brings his point home.

Nail the Subject

Specific questions lead to specific work. Vague questions can lead to vague work. Carefully 'name your game' to outline the specific subject of your investigation. Some examples of specific problem statements: Can ornament become utility? How are products gendered by color or pattern? What new behaviors would make the office feel more like the home? What interface features might address the privacy issues of geo-locative tracking?

Point your view

Your research into a subject, a genre, and its audience should lead you to some key emotional insights that will serve as triggers to deliver your chosen point of view. Design today is not neutral. It is biased and targeted at specific audiences based on emotional triggers that have a specific form. Don't be timid about it. But don't be too didactic either. Respect the reader's intelligence. Here, what you say and how you say it (with form) are inseparable. Develop the form extensively through iteration to fine tune the tone of your message.

Build a world around it

Think beyond objects and propose multiple platforms that work together to tell your story. Propose a full brand and envision 'brand extensions' that carry the story into multiple categories: A brand for 'Love Life' that promotes playful eroticism in daily life with an online social network, a video game, a line of fashions, and of course some 'electronic devices.' Today, many design stories involve systemic relationships that extend beyond the object – like where it came from and where it goes when its life cycle ends. These issues factor into the experience of the product. Multi-platform scenario development helps outline a full world for the product that brings your story to life.

Scott Klinker is Principal of Scott Klinker Product Design and 3-D Designer-in-Residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. His furniture designs are available through Design Within Reach and Unica Home. He is an alumnus of Cranbrook and IDEO.