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Story Design: The Creative Way to Innovate

Story Design: The Creative Way to Innovate

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Story Design: The Creative Way to Innovate

237 pagine
2 ore
Dec 29, 2017


Today's leaders are under pressure to innovate–or else. Trouble is, they never learned how. Story Design fixes that.

It's the only book that shows you how to design for the future using expertise you already have–narrative intelligence.

“Fusing expertise from documentary storytelling and design science, Story Design is a valuable resource for innovation practitioners, corporate strategists, change agents and any organization or group struggling to change trajectory in a dynamic and uncertain environment.”
–Lara Lee, President, Orchard Supply Hardware (division of Lowe’s Companies, Inc.)

Narrative intelligence is today’s untapped superpower; it’s the fuel that drives our creative and analytical engines. We use it constantly, to make sense of and shape our world. It’s what enables us to imagine new services, analyze experiences, predict customer behavior, test theories, map business model canvases–and much more.

In this practical playbook, Denise Withers shares tools from her thirty-five years of work as a filmmaker, consultant and academic to help you go beyond storytelling and learn how to use story design to create everything from sneakers to strategy. Drawing on real world examples, she shows you how to:
- discover and develop fresh ideas
- create and test breakthrough solutions
- plan and lead innovation ventures.

Narrative intelligence isn’t new. Neither is design. But no one has combined them before to reveal their hidden potential. Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a start-up or a world leader tackling system change, Story Design can help you develop the creativity and design thinking capacity you need to innovate on demand.


"Finally. A fresh take on design-driven innovation that is simple, practical and human." –Lara Lee, President, Orchard Supply Hardware (division of Lowe’s Companies, Inc.)

"Behind every great product is a great narrative. In the enjoyable and accessible Story Design, Denise Withers shows how stories work and how to use that knowledge to boost your business.” –Jake Knapp, New York Times bestselling author of “Sprint”.

“Story Design provides a template for innovating by design that helps us forge ahead with confidence in our methods—even when the outcome is uncertain.” –Whitney Johnson, Thinkers50, critically acclaimed author of "Disrupt Yourself"

"While the need for innovation in all areas of human endeavor is undisputed, the ‘how to’ of innovation still remains a mystery to most. Story Design provides a useful guidebook for the innovation process by tapping into the human ability to understand and create stories.” –Anthony Wolf, Vice President of Product Development and Innovation, Canadian Tire Corporation

“Denise Withers shows you how to stay inspired and inspire others, with practical tools and tips to design for real change.” –Jerry Koh, Director of Systems Innovation & MaRS Solutions Lab, MaRS Discovery District

Denise Withers launched her story career thirty-five years ago as a white-water filmmaker. After getting her feet thoroughly wet, she landed her first television gig–then spent the next twenty years writing and directing documentaries for Discovery Channel. Ninety stories, eight awards and five continents later, she left the media to earn a Master of Science in design and start her own story studio. Since then, Denise has used story design to lead innovation in health, education and economic development across the Americas. She has worked for 100+ clients from industry, government, academia and not-for-profits. For fun, she races outrigger canoes, hikes with her dogs and starts campfires in the rain.

Dec 29, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Denise Withers launched her story career thirty-five years ago as a white-water filmmaker. After getting her feet thoroughly wet, she craved tougher assignments, and spent the next twenty years writing and directing documentaries for Discovery Channel. Ninety stories, eight awards and five continents later, she left the media to earn a Master of Science in design and start her own story studio. Since then, Denise has used story design to lead innovation in health, education and economic development across the Americas. She has worked for 100+ clients from industry, government, academia and not-for-profits. For fun, she races outrigger canoes, hikes with her dogs and starts campfires in the rain.

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Story Design - Denise Withers



GENOMIC RESEARCHERS WORK at the jagged front edge of innovation, creating breakthroughs every day that change the fate of our species and our planet. Yet one of the toughest things about their job isn’t the science—it’s dealing with research grants. Developing logic models, writing proposals, managing projects, evaluating outcomes and crafting impact stories all suck up precious research time—and make most scientists see red—tape, that is. That’s why one of my university clients asked me to design a way to make the burden of bureaucracy more manageable. I’ve worked with academics for years and know that researchers at this level are extremely busy, businesslike and brilliant. My solution would have to be easy to learn and apply immediately.

So, I put a couple of two-hour story design workshops together for half a dozen of Canada’s top scientists. The idea was to show them how they could use a simple story model to construct (or design) a research project proposal for funders. The model would enable them to test out their ideas to make sure their logic and proposed outcomes were sound. Then, once their research was complete, they could use the same story model to deconstruct (or analyze) what had happened during the project. By comparing the before-and-after project stories, they could quickly evaluate their achievements and identify future research opportunities.

Since it’s easier to learn to tell stories about things that have already happened than it is to imagine future stories, I used the first workshop to show the scientists how to use the model to record the story of a past project. They quickly saw how simple it was to evaluate progress, identify innovation opportunities and report on achievements. As a bonus, they also discovered that this approach gave them a ready-to-use impact story to share with stakeholders.

At the end of the first workshop, I asked them to do a bit of homework and sketch the story of a recently completed project for practice. My plan was to use the second workshop the following morning to show them how to use the model to design future research stories and proposals.

When they returned the next day, I asked them how their homework had gone. Terrible, one guy snapped. Surprised, I asked what had happened. A true innovator, he had decided to skip ahead and try using the story logic model to sketch out a multimillion-dollar research project he was planning to submit to a European funding agency. As the future story of his proposal took shape, he quickly discovered flaws in the logic of his research design and realized that his original idea wasn’t going to work. He’d have to iterate—try something different. So, by ‘terrible,’ you mean it was great, right? Because an investment of twenty minutes just saved you from wasting six years and millions of dollars on a project doomed to fail. His peers laughed, and he grudgingly agreed.

Positioning his project as a springboard, I then helped the group learn to sketch, test and share future projects. By the end of the second workshop, every scientist in the room knew how to use story as a logic model to design, assess and report on research projects. Even better, they were all able to tell me the one-minute impact story of their current or future projects—a critical skill in any industry.

Though this isn’t the biggest or most famous story design project I’ve completed, I chose it to kick off this book for three reasons. First, the fact that a scientist new to story design was able to figure out how to use my model to plan his project, in just a few minutes, demonstrates how easy the process is to learn and apply. The fact that the darn thing worked, saving him precious time and making his innovation better, demonstrates that it generates real, immediate value. And the fact that I was able to help the world’s best researchers learn to share their impact stories to spread their innovations more broadly demonstrates to me that this work has real potential to change the way we design for the future.

The Back Story

I wrote this book in response to client requests to make my tools and expertise available to those who can’t work with me directly. It’s a great fit with my personal mission: to find creative ways to mobilize our collective wisdom to tackle the planet’s most complex problems. I spent the first twenty years of my career making TV documentaries, researching and sharing breakthrough scientific and social stories—from experiments with the first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in sub-Saharan Africa. I learned about people, politics and purpose. Most importantly, I learned sense-making: how to use my narrative intelligence to analyze and resolve complex problems through the lens of story.

Life as a filmmaker was grand until the turn of the century when reality TV hit, backed up over and dragged the North American documentary market to a melodramatic, messy death. Like many people, organizations and industries in recent years, I lost my livelihood almost overnight. Devastated, I had no choice but to look for a new career—to pivot, as the cool kids say.

With an eye on the future of digital media, I went to grad school to study narrative and design as part of the first cohort in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, British Columbia. For two years I camped out in a makeshift design lab, buried in the back of an old Walmart. (Our new campus was still just a sketch.) There, I did a deep dive into cognitive psychology, intelligence, engagement and learning theory. As I unpacked and compared these concepts, I discovered that the work I’d been doing as a filmmaker for two decades was really a form of design—or problem-solving. I’d been using story as a way to solve communication and education problems. I had been designing stories to change beliefs and behavior.

Through this research, I started to develop an emerging theory of narrative intelligence, connecting traditional design and problem­solving methods to our innate abilities to use story for analysis, learning and innovation. It was the first time I started to think about story as something more than a communication tool, something we all might be able to use to change the way we research and design solutions to complex problems. Though it was fascinating work, I couldn’t imagine how I could use it to make a living.

When I finished my studies, a local business school recruited me to lead new initiatives in curriculum innovation. Once I got down to work there, I was stunned to discover that basic problem-solving was not part of the program—even though it had become one of the top three skills demanded by today’s employers. Like other business schools, the faculty taught ad hoc analytical tools such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis and the blue ocean strategy. But none of the schools taught a methodical process to help students learn to define real-world problems clearly—then research, design, test and refine solutions that worked.

A colleague and I saw this curriculum gap as an opportunity and spent the next couple of years developing and launching a studio for strategic design at the university—the first of its kind in Canada. Our program introduced learners to a generic design process, similar to what they would experience at Stanford. Though students of all ages liked the idea of a hands-on problem-solving method, they still struggled to master the generic approach and ad hoc suite of tools in just one semester.

Once the studio was up and running, I left the university to work as an innovation and engagement consultant. That’s when I started to experiment with story as a framework for design. My hunch was that story design would be easier for my clients to learn and use than other design processes because it’s grounded in cognitive structures and systems that humans already know and understand. It’s natural and intuitive. Most other design methods are too abstract, which makes them hard for people to remember unless they use them every day. And my hunch was right. Clients who tried my story design approach loved it and were able to use it right away.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a suite of story tools, including the Story Specs™ and the Story Canvas™, to help clients apply and share the story design process with their teams. I’m publishing this book to share that same story design for innovation goodness with you—to help you learn to use your untapped narrative intelligence to bring your big ideas to life.

Whew! So that’s how we got here. Now—let’s go!


This is NOT a book about story telling.

Story Design is a playbook for story-powered innovation. It’s a how-to book that brings the power and process of creatives like filmmakers to leaders like you. To help you go beyond story telling and learn to use story as a design tool. To innovate. Turn ideas into action. Develop your next big thing. And engage others in your quest.

This book shows you how to take the process that authors use to design stories and put it to work to research and design all kinds of other things—from projects and experiences to campaigns and strategies.

I know, I know. There are hundreds of books on story telling and thousands of experts teaching story courses. So, what’s the X-factor here? What makes this book extraordinary?

This is the only book that teaches you how to design and innovate by channeling a superpower you already have: narrative intelligence. What’s that? It’s something that we’re born with, that we all share. Something that goes far beyond simply telling stories.

Narrative intelligence (NI) is the way humans think, learn, analyze and remember experiences and information. It’s our innate ability to make sense of and solve complex problems through the lens of story. It’s the foundation of our analytic and creative skills. Our natural design process. It’s an underdeveloped superpower with incredible potential—like a hidden core muscle we don’t flex often enough.

NI is what enables you to turn on a TV show when it’s half over and figure out what’s happening. Analyze past behavior of a competitor and predict her next move. Imagine the future and design a technology to make it real. Listen to customers describe a problem and zero in on the root cause. Laugh at a joke before the punch line because you know what’s coming. Cry when Simba loses his father and your heart breaks for him.

Narrative intelligence isn’t new. Neither is design. But no one has ever put them together before to reveal their untapped potential. This book works a bit like a narrative intelligence boot camp to help you go beyond story telling and fire up your NI muscles—to give you the hands-on tools you need to start thinking and working like a designer. So that you can discover how to use story as a platform for innovation—right here, right now.

This book has two parts.


This section introduces the three key concepts that drive story design: story, narrative intelligence and design. Using the Story Specs™ as a model, Part One shows you what each one is, how it works and why you need all three to design for innovation.


Part Two brings your big ideas to life with the Story Canvas™—a planning tool that gets you working like a designer. It’ll help you strengthen your NI muscles, so that you can use them to research and design innovative content, experiences and strategies that move people, on purpose.

Both the Story Specs and the Story Canvas are agile tools that you can learn to use in a few minutes—and continue to use for the rest of your life.

Who needs story design?

Anyone with a dream. Anyone who loves discovery. Anyone who can’t resist a dare. Anyone struggling to define a vision for a better future. Anyone with a mandate for innovation. Which is basically everyone these days!

And that’s a problem. Because most of us never had the opportunity to learn what innovation is, why it matters or how to do it. We just know that when we don’t do it, or mess it up, we get yelled at—or worse.

I decided to write this book specifically for all of you who are under pressure to innovate—or else. Because I want you to succeed. I want you to have a safe way to start to innovate right now. To have creative tools and techniques that you can use anywhere, anytime to research, design, test and refine new ideas. An easy-to-use approach that costs nothing to put into practice. A new way to study, shape and share your next big thing that is completely risk-free.

I decided to write this book because I do know what innovation is and I do know how to do it. I also know that story design can make it easy for you.


When I start to work with new clients, I always ask them why they want to innovate. Because figuring out why is the toughest—and most important—part of the process. It is The Beginning. You have to determine what problem you need to solve and why it matters before you can start to work on a solution. Think of innovation as a road trip—you need to have some idea of your desired destination before you can start to choose a route. Without fail, my clients always give me the same answer: The status quo isn’t working.

They go on to explain their situation by saying things like: All our usual methods of problem-solving have failed; The problem is too big or complex; We don’t know how or where to get started or We need a new way to do things.

They think that innovation is the answer because every management blog, journal and fridge magnet tells them so. Innovation is the holy grail for leaders these days. Everyone’s talking about it. And everyone wants it.

Ironically, few really need it. When I use story to analyze most of my clients’ problems, I typically find that they don’t need innovation at all. What they do need is change.

Wait—there’s a difference?

Absolutely, and it’s huge. So huge that there are thousands of books published on both topics, with new ones hitting the virtual shelves every day. As this is a playbook and not a textbook, I’m not going to do a deep dive into the theory of innovation. If you want that, check out Change by Design by Tim Brown and Barry Katz1 or The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley.2

For the work you’re about to do throughout this book, here’s what you need to know.

When you engage in a design process to create change, you produce an outcome that is different from the status quo. At the end of the process, something is different from the way it was when you started. It could be behavior, knowledge, attitudes, skills, choices, values. Maybe someone bought, built or destroyed something. Went somewhere, ate something. The difference or change can be anything—big or small. If I am hungry, then eat a meal, I am not hungry anymore. My status has changed from hungry to full.


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