The stories designers tell

The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

The virtual presses are understandably full of accounts of Steve Jobs‘ significance and magnificence. Many raise mystical questions of what made Jobs special and whether others will ever be able to reproduce his success. Great stories from Apple insiders about Jobs are being told. Without wishing to cast the slightest dispersion on Jobs’ obvious genius in any way whatsover, I do find myself wondering what embellishments are being applied as his former disciples spin these yarns.

There is no design in silence. All designers, like all designed objects, ‘tell stories’, sometimes deliberately, many other times without much degree of consciousness. Luis Porter and Sergio Sotelo.

Designers are often consummate story tellers. Whether they are exploring a design concept with a client, thinking out loud as they design (as per ‘protocol analysis’) or retrospectively articulating a personal creative epoch, stories and story-telling are integral to design thinking in all its forms. As colourful and generative as stories can be for the imagination, they are a poor mechanism for transmittal of facts.

Studies in cognitive development suggest that we tend to remember things in narrative form, particularly disorganized or ambiguous events, to aid their retrieval when the need arises. In fact, the urge to create narrative is so strong that we frequently fill in missing information and see causal relationships where there are none. In one notable study, children were asked to recount a story that had been told to them with obvious contradictions.  The children were observed to re-order those characteristics to be in line with what they or their listeners expected.  The surprise here is that the young appropriate adult’s desire for legitimancy so early in life.

After researching the recalled accounts of witnesses in courtrooms, John Kotre catalogued the foibles of human memory and recall. These include the power of suggestion (asking leading questions of an individual often causes them to insert ‘observations’ into their stories), the mixing up of one’s direct observations and information that was supplied after the event, and a phenomenon called cryptomnesia — the way that we unintentionally recall fiction as fact.

Cryptomnesia results from remembering what someone told you, but not that you were told. These and other memory phenomena contribute to what psychologists call reconstruction — the convergence of fact, observation and fabrication. Reconstruction holds that memories do not sit passively in one’s consciousness, as do words on a recording medium, but are constantly re-fashioned. Kotre’s conclusion—that we recollect what we want an event to be, rather than what it was—constitutes a telling insight into human nature.

Reconstructive memory is not an accurate source of detail. As time passes we are more likely to recall what happened rather than exactly when it happened. But this apparent human failing illuminates the real purpose of autobiographical memory. The yielding of when to what and the metamorphosis of observed fact into a post-hoc fiction both point to memory’s purpose as ‘the creation of meaning about self’, as Kotre puts it (White Gloves p. 87).

As individuals and members of a social order, we are better served by a digested construction of interpretations than a row of filing cabinets of un-interpreted factual atoms. Before we can give an experience a lasting place in memory, we have to decide what it means. This process of interpretation, generalisation and abstraction is more personal than almost any other, and serves to condense the otherwise unmanageable volume of memories about events and objects. Outside of this interpretation, we retain only unique events and first occurrences.  When we listen to a designer tell their story about designing we invite prejudice without distinction.  All stories are infested with reconstruction.

Kotre’s characterisation of memory suggests some implications for the listener or reader of a designer’s account — look for leading questions (or allow for their effect in your analysis of the response); recognise ‘always’ and ‘never’ as generalisations; mistrust the accuracy of any quantitative data; accept that a personal recollection may have been appropriated. Steve Jobs doesn’t need his employee’s amplifications to secure his place in history.  But he’ll get them just the same.

Always listen carefully and artfully to a designer’s stories, because they serve a number of purposes.


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