Storytelling in architecture design

Elsewhere Essay ・ Sep 15, 2021

A vital tool in design process for Students

This post was originally published in Bootcamp, a living collection of resources and case studies for designers starting in Design, UX, and UI by Nivedhitha Venkatakrishnan.

Storytelling and stories are an integral part of humankind since the beginning of time. Every culture, person, the place has a story that, they are a part-to tell, see and experience. Do you even think as a student of Architecture & Design storytelling is relevant to you?. It is essential. What is the need for you to tell a story as a designer?. The need for you to tell a story arises in your design as you deal with People, Purpose, and Place in other words User-Function-Space-Experience. Each Architectural design ideas are prototypes that convey a story involving the user who uses, lives, interacts and experience the space. These ideas when built becomes conceptual possibility and reality in the physical engagement of a user and their experience. So as a Student how can your design story, generate a series of narratives and relation between User-Function-Space “script to the Architecture& Experience and vice versa”.

When you talk about a story there are four parts to it. The facts are associated with emotions taking place in a particular moment in space. Let us take a simple well-known example “…and they lived happily ever after”. Sounds familiar right? most of the bedtime stories or the fairy tales that we know ends like this. Now try to breakdown understand this they — user(mostly the main characters), lived — function and Place(the fact that they lived in someplace doing something), happily — emotion(conveys how the characters/ users lived), ever after — time(gives us a temporal sense to relate). If we try to relate this to the design that we are working on currently. We design a particular space for people to where they engage — socially, personally, privately, physically, virtually, psychologically. Throughout a day or during a particular time of the day or week or month or year. But this space impacts what they do, how they do, and why they do the things that they do. The space that you created now turns into a living organism in itself with the lives in that space.

“Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining”. — Mark Tuner (cognitive scientist, linguist, and author).

Hmmm, well how do we do that? Let’s break down your design into smaller understandable portions, — it has a number of potential Users-Function-Space-Experience that you would have identified. Now, try to categorize based on importance come with a hierarchy listing of User-Function-Space-Experience. This gives you the primary target user — “the protagonist” of your design story. Also, there are other users in your design some play the role of supporting characters, some a cameo and some are in the background of the scene you create. Next, what does your protagonist do in the space that you are designing — we could call that “purpose/motive”. That is the function for your user to do in the space based on place and time. How they carry out a different function in one or more spaces would give the sequencing pattern a setting for your design — “User activity mapping”.

Along with these scenarios you have created for your user, as a designer, you have an understanding of what the user wants to experience and how they want to experience in that space?. And their interactions with People-Function-Space would give you the insight and guide you to — “Dialogues & Composition of design”, that creates the magic you, expect your user to Experience. While you do all of this, the theme that your design revolves around and demands gives rise to — “Concept”, which evolves by itself.

Storytelling in Architecture is not just physical interaction but a permanent one. It helps us connect to events with a holistic experience through time. This unique nature of stories makes it one of the essential tools during the design process. Previously, we have explored approaching the design, Architecture as human experience, and storytelling as a tool and how it aims to understand problems from the user perspective to address them with a human-centric approach. Each design, communicates a tale of value, identity, faith, belief, place, people, culture, time, knitting together with an understanding of all these, the situation within the set context of the design using the spatial language through an interactive tale. This solely depends on the ability of the design in guiding and shaping the user experience.

Okay, having said all that how do you tell your design story? When you design a building and imagine it is built you can’t always hang around the building to tell the user the story. Your work needs to tell the speak for itself.

“Art is not what you see, it is what you make others see” — Edgar Degas

The stories that you as a designer perceive in your mind don’t exist unless they are translated on paper. So, the perception of the space is portrayed as a story. This approach takes the circumstances that makeup space, and adds a certain bend to space this solely depends on the ability of the design in guiding and shaping the user experience. This could be:

  • Action-based storytelling where, the user(protagonist) through whose point of view, the entire design is driven.
  • Metaphorical storytelling — an idea conveyed in the form of a story, where the design is expressed by the quality of meaning associated.
  • Impressionistic storytelling — where the user and the experience are communicated through perceived interpretations to make sense.
  • Instructive storytelling — direct establishment of communication conveyed through the purpose.
  • Value-based storytelling — Scenarios based out of certain deep-rooted faith and believes.

The stories could also be a combination of the styles but comprise of four parts basic. For our understanding, we can be categorized as;

  • Backstory — a setting that needs to be studied based on which the story development happens. In the case of design, we are given a design problem based on which we arrive at a context development for the design.
  • Narrative overlay — basically how you attempt to present the story to your audience. In design, initially, we come with an understanding of our users, functions, and space. This helps in prioritizing and emphasizing certain things in the design that are of greater significance.
  • Theme — the genre on which a story mainly focuses, but there could be minor components of another genre that comes in between and could exist in the story without conflict and reducing the essence of the main focus. In design, the conceptual idea evolves based on the demands of design as a whole. Also, we try to work on minor concepts in certain spaces in cohesion with the main concept or in complete contrast but could coexist within the design in harmony.
  • Experience & Interaction — the exact feel that a story invokes in its audience while rending a scenario. In design, based on the context, analysis and concept perceived and induce the users’ experience. Where the design carefully crafts these using form, color, light, material, spatial language to transform the meaning of elements to embodied values & experience.

These forms of approaches to design, open up possibilities for many analytical approaches. The patterns derived from these analyses, with qualitative and quantitative data, values human needs as authentic. When you try to write down these interpretations of yours into a creative design brief- the script of your design story, that guides you through the project and not as a story for you to juries but a real one that helps you throughout the design process.

Nivedhitha Venkatakrishnan

Nivedhitha Venkatakrishnan is a design Enthusiast, Architect & Urban Designer with a passion for Academic Research & writing. Exploring Human centric approaches to design.