In order to create something new, you first have to believe that it’s possible.
This is harder than it sounds, especially if you’re a veteran in your industry. For many of our clients, the world is defined by what’s not possible: this can’t be done because the technology doesn’t support it, that can’t be done because of cost, this can’t be done because of time. This perspective makes logistical sense, because you need to know your industry’s constraints in order to compete. But it’s also one of innovation’s greatest obstacles.
This anti-possible bias is actually one of the main reasons why designers sketch. A quick visual can take a vague idea and turn it into a vivid image that nudges the discussion out of “no” territory and into the land of “what if?” More than just a way of developing ideas and exploring alternatives, sketching is also unparalleled at creating a sense of possibility, and even optimism.
These days, traditional sketching seems to be on the decline, but in fact “sketching” can encompass a lot more than just making marks on paper. There’s a wide range of digital tools for making concepts more concrete, which have gotten quick and intuitive enough to allow designers to sketch a 3D object, a video, an audio snippet, or an interface. But perhaps the most useful form of sketching that we do at Narrative is sketching in stories.
Like an increasing number of design agencies, we don’t design a lot of specific things these days. The design of physical products is increasingly accessible and commoditized, and for many clients, the real opportunity to differentiate is in the experiences they weave and the scenarios they create. This makes story sketching—creating vignettes about possible futures—a critical part of our work. For many of the teams we work with, it’s difficult to see the potential until they...see it.
The idea of writing fiction to explore possible futures certainly isn’t new. The author Bruce Sterling has written a lot about design fiction, and the ways it overlaps with science fiction. More recently, creative leaders like Julian Bleecker and Nick Foster (of Google X) have developed it into a full-blown discipline, with its own guidelines and handbook.
In science fiction, visions of the future of technology tend to skew toward dystopia, as in the Terminator, Alien, and Blade Runner franchises. This is perfectly understandable, and often useful too: new technologies tend to bring huge potential downsides for society, and cautionary tales like these can help sharpen our attention. The Discursive Design or “design for debate” genre, pioneered by Fiona Raby, Anthony Dunne, Carl DiSalvo and others, takes an object-based approach, creating speculative products specifically to illustrate some of these downsides.
But for clients, we also create equally vivid images of optimistic potential futures, as a tool for shifting perspective. Optimistic story sketches change the discussion around where to place your effort and resources, but they do it in a non-personal way. A good story sketch becomes another voice in the conversation about strategy, acting as a kind of non-human advocate for the positive outcomes of design decisions.
Just about everything that’s true of traditional product sketching is true of story sketching: it’s an exploratory process, it starts loose and low-fidelity (to avoid over-prescribing a solution and make it easier to kill bad ideas), and it becomes more refined and detailed as it's iterated.
An early story sketch, for example, might be as simple as capturing an idea from a preliminary discussion and turning it into a few bullet points or sentences of text, which are then augmented by quick visuals, whether digital or analog. Further refinement leads to more detailed visual snapshots of future environments, more fleshed-out writing, or perhaps a mocked up artifact from the future (a sign, a label, an ad, etc.).
I’d suggest that this kind of story sketching is only going to become more useful in design projects as time goes on. The workaday aspects of product and digital design that formed the bulk of a studio’s work in recent years are being rapidly automated and commoditized; the uproar around ChatGPT’s incredible generative abilities is just one example. The real advantage that capable, experienced designers bring to a project isn’t just their ability to come up with a beautiful object or an elegant interface, but their ability to imagine new ways of doing things.
New technology always transforms industries, and the most successful players are the ones who figure out how to harness its potential while minimizing its negatives. The long-term value of story sketching—and the reason we’ve made it integral to our process—is that it keeps human experience exactly where it should be: at the center of the decision-making process.