Storytelling and Focus

Apr 28, 2010

It’s been said that “design is in the details,” and though I understand that mindset, I’ve always seen design as the big picture.

Design for me is not about how something looks or feels. Although that’s important, it’s purely a manifestation or implementation of some broader concept and core emotional value. Personally, I’ve always concerned myself less with the way, say, a button looks and more on why that button is necessary to begin with. The key to design, I’ve found, is focus. In every good story in *any* medium, every detail works together to maintain focus on one thing – story. The difficulty here is twofold: one, being able to create and understand that story and see all the pieces needed to tell it, and two, ensuring that all those detailed pieces are done perfectly so as not to detract from the story. Most people, when they think about design, think about this latter part – techniques to manifest the concept. And because this second part is difficult as it is, it’s even more difficult when the bigger picture story isn’t clear.

If you look at well-known design/story companies such as Apple and Pixar, you will surely see attention to detail in everything. But all that obsession and pixel-perfect implementation is due to the fact that there’s a central focus and core value driving it all. Pixar makes good movies first, because they ensure they have a great story to tell and second, because they spend massive amounts of energy trying to make the details such that instead of distracting the audience, they actually enhance the story beyond the core concept.

This is very difficult to do. The manifestation of the details of a story takes time, exploration and iteration, not to mention expertise and insight. Never be married to an execution if there’s a shred of doubt in your mind that it might not be the best version. Few things are perfect the first time, if ever. But throughout the process, it’s imperative to maintain the focus on the core story to help you make decisions on what to do. Hence, without that core value and thus, no true focus, your manifestations have no heart.

I find this to be the same paradigm as how we live our lives as people trying to communicate with one another. We each have our own core identity, values, hopes and fears that we want to convey, abide by and on which we want to connect with each other. The problem is that when it comes to the manifestation of our core selves, like designers, all we can do is explore and iterate. And most people aren’t even skilled or insightful at this, so it makes it all even harder.

I really believe that everyone is, at heart, a good person who simply wants to love and be loved. When we hear of people disagreeing and fighting with each other, feeling lost or angry, alone or isolated, arrogant or depressed, I say it’s due to issues with manifestation, since no one really knows how to effectively always come across the way they are, let alone how to forget their own issues and really just try to hear everyone else. It’s this disparity between who you are, how you act and how you’re perceived that I think has lead to much of the unpleasantness we see in the world. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make any sense for someone to be inherently a bad person.

We are often more alone when we are with others than when we are solitary, simply because it’s only in social settings that we must work to explain ourselves and hear others adequately. But if you don’t know yourself well, then you can feel just as alone when you’re by yourself as when you’re with other people. Knowing ourselves is what keeps us focused in our lives on the things that are important to us. With a real focus on our core values, we will be much more likely to understand that the actions we take may not be the best ones and be more introspective on how we can better communicate ourselves.

The problem I’ve found is that few people seem to really know themselves anymore. And if that’s the case, then they have no focus to drive their behavior, which breaks down the whole communication system. It’s hard enough as it is to communicate the same story through various implementations and even harder when no one knows what the story is to begin with. I think that very well may be why we as people tend to be so emotionally tied to good stories – we see through them the possibility that everything can happen the way we want and we identify with the all the obstacles along the way.

These days, we’re so inundated with options, choices, distractions, ways to be entertained and immense freedom to be whoever we want that it’s a lot easier to not know yourself and what you want. And if you’re swimming in a sea of possibilities, it’s easy to lose that focus. It’s the paradox of choice – more options is more paralyzing.┬áThoreau had said that it’s “not until we are lost that we begin to understand ourselves,” and I think that a lot of people are lost and just don’t realize it.

Trying to find a focus requires an understanding of the big picture, being able to see the world outside yourself, where you fit in and realizing the awesomeness that is humanity. You don’t need to be 100% sure of what you want to do or how you want to act, but you need to have a solid understanding of yourself, what makes you happy and your role in society both among peers and the rest of the world. And that’s pretty much as big picture as you can get.

Part of what helps you find yourself is being alone, contemplating your thoughts and your life and being sensitive to everything outside yourself that you take in. Consider what your friends are telling you, consider what you glean as you go about the world, think about what’s under the surface. Consider what other people are trying to say and realize that they’re in the same boat as you and may not express themselves correctly either. Be sensitive to it all and really take it to heart.

Being certain of yourself is really difficult when everyone around you isn’t. It’s a lot easier to join the crowd and go with the flow than it is to separate yourself and figure it out. I still may not be entirely certain of myself and the world, despite spending most of my time thinking about it. But one thing I am certain of is this: if you do know yourself, are sensitive to the world around you and see the big picture, it’s so much more enriching and meaningful.

When it comes to design, my life, my friends and most things, my refrain has been that the details will work themselves out, which is not at all to say they’re not important. But if we put most of our energy into communally understanding what the big picture is – of a product, movie, each other and our relationship with everything – then the details will fall into place because we all understand the story and can work together to tell it.

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