Concurrents: The Potency of Storytelling

Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, Executive Vice President andCEO of IIDA

Stories are astonishingly powerful. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t encountered enough good ones. (If that’s you, email me: I’ve got recommendations.) Think about it: We have all, at some point, found ourselves bingeing a Netflix series, staying up late to finish the final pages of a novel, or gripping the edge of our seats as a raconteur pal unspools a surprising tale. That’s because stories scratch at something innately human, and essential. Storytelling is as old as humanity itself; we are compelled to shape our worlds through narrative.  

Designers understand this deeply. After all, design is storytelling, full stop. At its best, design creates not just space but place; not just physical surroundings, but an intangible connection that we come back to again and again, like a great story.  

Looking ahead to NeoCon, now just days away, I’m eager to hear Bob Weis, Gensler’s Global Entertainment lead and former president of Walt Disney Imagineering, dive into the power of storytelling in commercial design during his keynote talk. Bob feels the potency of stories deep in his bones: Aside from building narrative-driven experiences during his 30-year career at Disney, he has also penned screenplays and books. His career has been built on the knowledge that masterful stories, like masterful design, spark emotion, promote equity, establish a sense of place, enhance well-being, and inspire wonder. 

I am endlessly intrigued by people who live at the intersection of design and story, because that symbiosis feels like a fundamental truth, but one that not everyone understands. In his 2004 book, “Emotional Design,” professor, author, and design theorist Donald Norman shares an anecdote about the trio of teapots he keeps on his kitchen window. The first, invented by French artist Jacques Carelman, bizarrely has the handle on the same side as the spout. Carelman called it a “coffeepot for masochists.” (It was part of his “Catalogue d’Objets Introuvables” — Catalogue of Impossible Objects.) The second, made of blown glass and designed by Michael Graves, is also strange, with its stubby tripod base, yet strangely beautiful. The third, a tilting teapot from German tea company Ronnefeldt, has an unusual setup but is surprisingly practical. Norman makes tea daily, but he rarely uses any of these vessels to do so. 

“Why am I so attached to my teapots? … These objects are more than utilitarian,” Norman writes. “As art, they lighten up my day. Perhaps more important, each conveys a personal meaning: each has its own story. One reflects my past, my crusade against unusable objects. One reflects my future, my campaign for beauty. And the third represents a fascinating mixture of the functional and the charming.” 

The way Norman’s personal narrative intersects with designed objects reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Solomon Renfro, a brilliant sneaker designer at New Balance who began his journey studying interior architecture before pivoting to footwear. On my Skill Set podcast, we discussed the art of telling compelling stories through design — be that interior, architectural, or footwear design — and how fashion choices telegraph the wearer’s personality. Solomon dropped in a detail about a critical moment in his life: the time he got his first pair of colorful sneakers, turquoise Jordan 1 low-tops. “I was like whoa, I feel weirdly confident right now,” he said of his boldly hued shoes. “Honestly, I’m a little bit angsty or rebellious, and so I noticed some people did not like that I wore them. And I kind of liked that, too.” Those sneakers added shading to the personal story Solomon communicates to others, and to himself.  

Importantly, design can also write people into — or out of — a larger story. Equitable design is not just a term du jour; it’s a call to action. It is incumbent upon all of us in the design industry to ensure that the spaces we create are inclusive and accessible for everybody, that the built environment actively welcomes individuals of all races, gender expressions, cultures, and abilities — rather than treating some like minor characters, or writing them off entirely. This involves inviting diverse perspectives into the design process early, designing with and not for. That idea is the foundation of IIDA’s Design Your World (DYW) program, which creates pathways for high school students from communities that are underrepresented in our industry to learn more about the field and explore the history and process of commercial design. In a sense, DYW invites young people to write their own chapters in the collective design story. 

It goes without saying that design storytelling is also important in realms like the workplace, the educational space, and healthcare settings. In hospitals, design details like room location and layout, floor patterns, and window placement all affect patients’ recovery and overall wellness. In schools, exterior and interior design profoundly influences learning and belonging. And since the pandemic, our relationship to physical workplaces has radically shifted (and is still in flux); designers are on the forefront of conceiving new narratives around work environments — how they look, feel, and function, and the role they play in the stories of our lives. 

As our world continues to evolve, design stories will be key signposts to help us interact with new kinds of spaces, and designers will find fresh ways to create connection and foster new experiences. Just as iconic books and media, the arts, and technology transform culture, design storytelling has the capacity to shape a better world. 

Editor’s Note: Durst is committed to achieving broad recognition for the value of design and its significant role in society. Under her leadership, IIDA sets an agenda that leads the industry in creating community, advancing advocacy and continuing work toward equity. She is a member of the International WELL Building Institute Governance Council; and a Trustee for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the NYSID. Cheryl was the first recipient of the Interior Design Hall of Fame Leadership Award, and is the first Black woman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.