Design Studies Symposium begins with a workshop on storytelling

Published on: March 7th, 2014

Hello and welcome to the Design Studies Symposium at Parsons the New School for Design. This post is to give you a glimpse of what goes on in these two days, as guests speakers come in and we address various threads that run through this vast fabric that has come to mean design, and we’ll find out how they are being reinterpreted.

The symposium began today afternoon. As a build up to it, the students of the MA Design Studies and Transdisciplinary Design program had an intimate workshop with about 20 students to talk about “Storytelling for Social Change.” It was led by Lee-Sean Huang of Foossa, a company of designers, storytellers and problem solvers, as they call themselves. Foossa essentially partners with individuals and organizations to create campaigns that have a significant participative character.

In the three-hour session, Lee-Sean took us through the thought process that goes into the making of a social campaign. The presentation, dotted with case studies—some interesting, some banal, some endearing— was fast-paced, packed with content and interspersed with workshop time. We worked in groups as well as individually, sometimes graphically mapping ideas elaborately and other times haiku-condensing them.

Consider the three-fold model of narrative strategy that Lee-Sean identified for as:

Identity — who am I?

Protocols — what do we believe in?

Artifacts — the objects, interfaces, gestures.

The task at hand was to visualize and map these three elements in a way that portrays how narratives flow within and around them. While Lee-Sean visualized the three elements as three bubbles set in a linear fashion, the students’ visualizations took on many complex shapes and outlines.

There was a pyramid-shaped model that might have seemed hierarchical but for the ocean-current resembling arrows that ran across them, showing the interdependence and a fluid nature of a narrative strategy. Another group did a tree-shaped model, and another did a color-coded radial model resembling the structure of an atom at microscopic level. Another group broke away from this method of conceptual mapping and articulated their thoughts via a real world situation and application.

The exercise was certainly fun, proactive and reflective of how we process the information around us and consequently approach design.

We moved on to addressing a problematic area of social campaigns, that they can sometimes be absolutely tone-deaf.

A dated but perfect example was the Sally Struther’s campaign for Christian Children’s Fund, advocating for impoverished children in Africa. However well intentioned, a lot of socially inclined communication turns out cringe-worthy.

In contrast to that, we watched the hilarious and provocative Raid-aid campaign, where the “tables are turned” and Africa is singing in a very “We Are the World” style to help the people of Norway to get through their subzero temperatures.

Towards the end, we saw the must-watch Save The Children campaign on how war affects children. It starkly illustrated the change in impact the change in tone of communication can cause.

In the midst of fleshing out the idea of storytelling as a way to approach design, another problematic area emerged. It seems that in some cases, design boils down to research, to knowledge of the context, to the story that’s being told.

Yet stories as a method of collecting information can be limiting. “Any story is only a partial glimpse of a bigger whole,” as one of the students put it, “and the ability of a story to create a perception can sometimes be helpful and other times tie us down.”  The solution to this limiting-nature of a storytelling approach did not come immediately, but emerged in the course of time and conversation: “It does not have to be absolute knowledge, but a story that makes sense to the people who are involved,” said Lee-Sean rather unselfconsciously. There was a sense of agreement to this among students, as that would lend some semblance of credibility to a social campaign, or any design for that matter. Also, we may never get the whole view, but a human view would be a good place to start.


Program Contact

Caroline Dionne, Program Director

Program Update

Parsons is not currently admitting new students to this master’s degree program. Parsons is now offering a Graduate Minor in Design Studies that is designed to complement the MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies and other graduate programs across the university in design, liberal arts, and social research.