Starship Narratives and the Creative Process

Figure 1: A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a NewsPad is prominently featured as a communication device easy and portable enough to use while eating breakfast at a dinner table.

Figure 1: A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a NewsPad is prominently featured as a communication device easy and portable enough to use while eating breakfast at a dinner table.

I started teaching at Parsons School of Design again. It's been 5 long years since I taught there. I didn't realize how much I missed it until I stepped into the classroom and started chatting with students whose portfolios are already blowing my mind. This semester, I am teaching a studio class on the future of mobile technology and design. It's going to be awesome. New Yorkers Josh Clark and Liza Kindred will be stopping by to talk about connected devices and fashion technology. Abi Jones will be Googling in from Mountain View to chat about gesture-based interfaces and non-screen-based-UIs. And because the subject is mobile, I've already kicked the students out onto the sidewalk to start pounding some pavement. It's going to be a blast.

The thing about future technologies, however, is this: I believe there is no future of technology or great design without a solid imagination and ability to envision crazy (yet viable) scenarios of humans using technology to better their lives. I come from a long history of science fiction watching. I grew up watching Star Trek with my dad. I went on to study science fiction and make movies in film school...twice, for some reason. I've been making science fictions real as a designer and technologist creating software, websites, and even kiosks and CD ROMS in the olden days. The entire time, the one common thread between what I saw on the screen and what I did in my daily life as a designer and technologist was not the technology. That changes all the time. The common thread was the story behind the technology. And by story, I mean, the story of use that envisions a human using technology to get something done. Humans have goals. Protagonists in stories have goals. As I've found through much research and practice, a good experience with product or service has a lot in common with a good story.

There is no technology that engages and inspires without an engaging story of use behind it. Because of that, I will be teaching my students how to craft stories of use for things like mobile apps, wearables, and non-screen user interface solutions as the very first step in their design process. If they already have ideas they want to prototype, crafting stories of use will be a gut-check along the way. Or maybe the stories of use will be the backbone of their prototype and concept testing plans. Likely, all of the above.

What am I talking about? If you've read any of my work, seen me speak, attended one of my workshops, ever studied with me, or have just followed me around over the past year, you know that I'm talking about narrative design and a technique that I arbitrarily call storymapping – literally, mapping out intended stories of use with a product or service to ensure that the story is sound, great, and end-experience is ultimately engaging. After all, stories are one of the oldest ways humans have to engage one another. Cave people used stories. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world through stories. They already structure much of what we experience and communicate as humans, so we may as well harness the craft to make the things we design more engaging.

And, no, I'm not talking about telling stories. I'm talking about envisioning the experiences with the things we create as great stories, narrative arc, solid story structure, heroes, goals, and all. It's so easy, even young children can be taught to map stories before they jump in and create things.

But we're not storytellers!

No, we're not storytellers. We're designers and technologists. We craft things that people actively engage with and have a feedback loop. Stories in films and novels are engaging, but there isn't a direct feedback mechanism. Our goal is not to entertain, but to grab people's attention and make them act. And story architecture should inform and structure the things we build so that that people are more likely to engage and then act. Stories engage. And so should products and services and digital things.

Figure 2: Picture in picture. A photograph of me on a lonely work trip, far from home, holding an iPad and watching a scene from Star Trek The Next Generation Season 3 episode, "The Bonding." In the scene, a child holds an uncannily similar touchscreen device and watches home movies because he misses home. 

Figure 2: Picture in picture. A photograph of me on a lonely work trip, far from home, holding an iPad and watching a scene from Star Trek The Next Generation Season 3 episode, "The Bonding." In the scene, a child holds an uncannily similar touchscreen device and watches home movies because he misses home. 

Even the iPad was narratively engineered by professionals before Apple started work on the device. Stanley Kubric and Gene Roddenberry (see Figure 2) clearly articulated how a device like that fits into users lives. Someone like Steve Jobs was no stranger to these imaginary constructs. In fact, the name for the iPad is undoubtedly a nod to the NewsPad from 2001 (see Figure 1 above). 

Both devices have this story:

  • Exposition: someone is in a spaceship, far away from home.
  • Problem: someone wants to connect with home.
  • Rising action: there's this device that's compact, easy to use, streams data wirelessly across the universe, and can connect them to home in real-time or asynchronously.
  • Climax: works like magic. The protagonist is connected. Visually! This is way better than the phone or television.
  • Resolution: all good. Now the protagonist can continue to trek around the universe.

And because Star Trek The Next Generation is never above heavy-handedness, the aforementioned episode is even called "The Bonding." I do love Star Trek.

Contrary to popular belief, design is not genius; design is logical, can follow a system, and should map out onto how humans operate and function. Just like a good story.

I'm excited to see what my students come up with in the next 14 weeks. Stay tuned!