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Stories, not Atoms: #HOWLive 2013

4 minutes

The American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” A great story has the power to shift the way we look at a particular subject, idea, or person. There is no better example of this than through the experience of film. A great film has the ability to make us laugh, make us cry, make us pause…. As creatives, we have the opportunity to learn from filmmakers as they explore the voyeuristic, the vicarious, and the visceral through visual storytelling.

At this year’s HOW Live Conference in San Francisco, I had the privilege to represent Rule29 and share with our peers one part of the design thinking process we are exploring—how preparation, inspiration, exploration, and a better understanding of story can lead us to create some of our most powerful and memorable work.

In the past, I have talked about collaboration, our creative matter® approach, Life Kerning, how to SEE differently, and the exploration of wonder. This latest talk was really an amalgam of those concepts in many ways. First of all, we believe that story should be a part of the process. Our clients come to us to help them be unique in their space, and we believe it all starts with understanding their unique story. A client’s culture, process, and goals are a unique combination, but we tend to spend most of our time making without first understanding that story.

At Rule29, we use film not only as inspiration, but as a tool for both internal and external conversation. Internally, at retreats and at creative meetings, we use film to talk about style, forms of storytelling, and ways to express ourselves differently.

We’ve highlighted this in some of our short films as well as our Stories Matter project.

As part of our process with clients, we’re using film to help reframe exploration, questioning, and understanding this specific story. Here are a few samples and slides from this year’s presentation.

As an example of what inspires us, I shared some tools we use to track and use film like:

Sites: Letterboxd,  Vimeo Staff Picks,  Short of the Week,  Art of the Title

Books: Robert McKee – Story,  Blake Snyder – Save the Cat

Questions to Ponder

There is a “both/and” going on here. We can’t escape the fact that we are creatives—we do what we do for someone else, yet we are part of it; we have a purpose beyond financial compensation only. This is why understanding the story you are trying to tell is critical to great creative output. A great line from the film I used in this section, Stranger Than Fiction, that directly realates to something we should remember in the design process is: “Often you have to know the stories that you aren’t in to know the story are in.”

“In the end all we have…are stories and methods of finding and using those stories.” – Roger C. Shank, from Tell Me A Story


Do you explore story? Right now, when you sit down to design, do you think about “story”?


Make sure you you don’t get overly caught up in pointing people toward what to see—focus on helping them HOW to see.

How do you help others see? A great film about looking closer is American Beauty. The whole point of the movie is to challenge the viewers to do just that. We believe this scene can help emphasize that to your team and clients:

We often ask our clients if they are willing to look closer—so we need to make sure we are as well. If we are mindful and try to experience the way things are naturally, the simplest things can become beautiful possibilities for a solution.


As Designers…
We too are storytellers; ours is simply a different medium.
We too welcome a response.
We too can leave an impact.

There is a lot to unpack here, but at Rule29 we think the understanding, research, and study of story is just as important, if not more so, than what we make. Companies who understand how their story relates to their clients’ needs and who utilize sound design thinking will consistently out-perform those who do not. It’s our challenge to create steps that pull out the salient points of the story as much as possible. Equally as important, we think, is to live a story worth reading.

For more on story, this presentation, or our perspective, give us a shout. In the meantime, remember that:

Moments from Everynone on Vimeo.