The Designer as The Lens. (to be published)


The Designer as The Lens. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser “The speed of darkness” (1968)


In the same way that atoms live microscopically, some stories can live unnoticed if not placed under a lens. This is the case of many emerging initiatives that promote sustainability across industry sectors worldwide. In this space the designer plays a determinative role to magnify and frame essential stories of this world in constant transformation, stories which are often shy in their nature, imperceptible and on the periphery of mainstream. Storytelling as a method in design has gained large momentum over the last decade. Frameworks, media and technological advances are vastly explored, whether to communicate complex information through narrative and visualisation (Lankow, 2012; Klaten, 2011) or to engage actors in systems, interactions and experiences (Erickson, 1996; Brooks, 2010). However, with the purpose to understand how the designer himself plays a role in listening and telling the story of things on the edge of the mainstream, the unconventional or unfamiliar, I will take a step back to reflect on the purpose of the art of story-telling and of story-listening.

Storytelling is more than a method. It is a universal ancient means of education, cultural preservation and way of imprinting moral values across societies and generations. Stories have allowed us to travel both back in time and forward in the future. For a story to exist it requires a time and space, a plot, characters and a narrative voice. The experience of storytelling is vested in the narrative that is, both told and listened. Throughout history, stories have unlocked the potential to aggregate common beliefs and move people to create communities of shared interests. This is still true today, however through very different means and for very different ends. Technology, communication and connectivity has allowed for the constant telling of stories, embeded in the mundane, through complex multiple layers of time and places. Regardless of the technological advances, it is still through storytelling that in fundamental everyday life that we make sense of our existence and our contribution to the wider world. In the current times of abundance for initiatives promoting more sustainable ways of living, designers play a key role in deciding what stories and details are brought into actuality – what to magnify, what to talk about. The designer as a maker is a native explorer of the world equipped with the tools to discover the most interesting stories in society. However, each designer is also an individual with a background, unique point of view, beliefs and motivations, which inevitably shape the way a story is told and how others take part in that vision - imagining the way things are, were, or could be. I understand this diversity of voices to be a positive trait, a collective of rich potentialities that can feed into each others’ narratives and build new ones. I further illustrate this point borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s perspective on the nature of storytelling.

In the late 1930s, in his seminal essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin expressed a deep concern for the oral tradition of storytelling coming to an end. He feared that “experience of value” was decreasing as a consequence of Modernity; technology, industrialisation and new forms of social organization. Storytelling was being replaced by The Novel. Although both narrative formats, the ultimate difference between the two can be paralleled to the difference between speech and writing, voice and text, fundamentally presence and absence. The novel is seen as a solitary experience of the reader, whether storytelling is understood as a participatory and collective experience. The purpose of storytelling is inspiring others through the embedded moral of the story - or “the experience of value”. In this perspective, what distinguishes the storyteller from others who tell narratives (such as the novelist) is that the storyteller tells the narrative from experience - whether his own or that of others - and in the process it becomes a shared experience of those who listen. In this sense, when telling stories of unconventional sustainable behaviours, the storyteller (the designer) has an imperative position to bring about positive human value because “traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel”. This is why the capacity of the designer as a lens is extremely valuable. Through correctly amplifying positive aspects of unconventional sustainable behaviours in a designerly, compelling and engaging way, it guides the listeners to understand why these sustainable behaviours exist and why they matter. The role of the designer as a story-listener is equally important to that of telling the story. As a lens in the world, the designer needs to be participative and present because people ultimately are the milieu of the craft. These qualities are true of designers working within social innovation and sustainability, a fertile ground for stories of unconventionality. Throughout time we have been fascinated by stories of novelty; tales of unsung heroes, of travellers in journeys from far away places, of epic places where history was made. As Walter Benjamin recalls, the best stories are “embedded in rooms in which people have died, or rooms where people have been born”. Hence, the elements of uniqueness that memorable stories are made of, can be found on the fringe of the mainstream.

This is where I am at odds with Walter Benjamin; “the art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”

On the contrary, I believe it is emerging. We have not lost the ability to exchange experiences. Considering the growing number of social innovation projects inspiring values towards a sustainable good life, the art of storytelling is now extremely important to transform and leverage the audience formally known as “passive listeners” to become “active tellers”.



* To be published in DESIS Design Philosophy Book 2015 all rights Joana Casaca Lemos & DESIS

* Image rights Man & Camera


Erickson, T. (1996) Design As Storytelling. interactions. [Online] 3 (4), 30–35. Benjamin, W. (1968) The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov in Illuminations. 2. Vol. 241. Random House LLC. Lankow, J. (2012) Infographics: the power of visual storytelling. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Klanten, R. et al. (eds.) (2011) Visual storytelling: inspiring a new visual language. Berlin: Gestalten. Rukeyser, M. (2005) The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. Quesenbery, W. & Brooks, K. (2010) Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. 1st edition. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media.