Book Review: Design is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton

Review by Jay Ginsherman Provisional RGD

Design Is Storytelling is a reminder to designers that the key to success for any design project is similar to that for a story - it needs a clear beginning, middle and end. 


Title: Design Is Storytelling

Author: Ellen Lupton


From exhibition design to the layout of ikea, from packaging to apps, Ellen Lupton’s book uses real-world examples to teach designers how we can harness the power of storytelling to make our work pop.


Design Is Storytelling is organized into three “Acts”, Act 1: Action, Act 2: Emotion and Act 3: Sensation. Each Act is filled with case studies and research on the way people relate to narratives and how designers can use that to their advantage. Each example is explained with cartoon-like illustrations that give the book a more light-hearted and inviting nature.


One of the storytelling tools Ellen explains is called "Stuart Candies Possibility Cone", which helps designers find a desirable solution by placing possible outcomes on a spectrum, from ideal to dystopian. RGD's Book Club was introduced to this tool while reading Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. However, as commercial designers, we were initially puzzled as to how we could make a living creating such critical work outside of the corporate world. In Design Is Storytelling, Ellen clarifies that even corporate designers can use more imaginative approaches to problem-solving such as predicting the ways in which their designs will be used in the future. 


She also discusses personas and the importance of realizing that a product can have character, and how designers should use that. A product’s character is often centred around gender, such as being masculine and strong, which can actually steer people away who do not identify with the gender binary. It pleased me to see recognition of non-binary gender identities in a design book because many books suggest that women and men react differently to certain shapes and colours. Ellen offers a much needed critique to these assumptions.


Design Is Storytelling is a quick glance at the many ways designers can use narratives to guide our users and even our clients to turn their everyday tasks into memorable experiences.



About the reviewer

Jay Ginsherman Prov. RGD is a Toronto-based graphic designer and conceptual design thinker who also works as a fine artist, map maker, educator and occasionally, a drag queen. Jay currently works as a freelance designer working out of the Centre for Social Innovation as a home base.