by Ellen Lupton, Senior Curator of Contemporary Design

In 2017, Cooper Hewitt published my book Design Is Storytelling, which has become a best-seller among design books and has been translated into seven languages. Designers use form, color, materials, and language to stimulate curiosity, helping us understand everything from transit signs to shampoo bottles. Design embodies values and illustrates ideas. It delights, surprises, and urges us to action. Design Is Storytelling examines the psychology of visual communication from a narrative point of view. Human beings seek and create patterns as we navigate the world—and we feel intrigued, stimulated, and sometimes frustrated when patterns break. Designers use storytelling to hook the imagination of users and invite actions and behaviors.

Storytelling is an alternative to problem-solving, a dominant way we talk about design. I first heard the statement “Design is problem-solving” when I was an art student at The Cooper Union in 1982, long before the arrival of Photoshop, digital fonts, or the Internet. We were taught that in order to solve visual problems, designers should apply simple forms in a rational manner. A great example of problem-solving is the signage system used in New York City’s subway, designed by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda in 1970. The designers used sans serif type and dots of color to create signs that are easy to understand and maintain. Problem solved, four decades and counting.

Subway signs don’t just solve a problem, however; they also convey values about order, reliability, and civic life. The subway is a place where people fall asleep, fall in love, get drunk, and get lost. Trains rumble, platforms murmur, and ads hawk everything from underpants to wrinkle cream. In 2008, Yves Béhar designed a line of free condoms (distributed by the city’s health department) inspired by New York’s subway signs. Here, the subway’s colorful dots represent a city where people move about and freely mingle, a place of love and danger.

As a student, I felt that problem-solving wasn’t enough. What about beauty, feeling, and sensation? What about humor, conflict, and interpretation? As a curator at Cooper Hewitt, I’ve explored design and feminism, the body, the user, and multisensory experience. It’s been my pleasure to write many books with Cooper Hewitt over the past 30 years, including this one, which isn’t connected to any particular exhibition.

Design Is Storytelling is a playbook for creative action. The book unfolds in three main acts. Act I, “Action”, explores the patterns that underlie nearly every story, from the narrative arc to the hero’s journey. Designers can apply these patterns to users’ relationships with products and services. The process of unboxing a gadget, opening a bank account, or visiting a library follows a dramatic arc marked by anticipation and satisfaction. Scenario planning and design fiction help us imagine the future and question the status quo.

Act II, “Emotion”, looks at how design plays with our feelings, moods, and associations. Co-creation helps designers build empathy with users and create solutions that enhance life. No one is happy all the time. A user’s emotional journey can include lows as well as highs, hitting points of annoyance and anger as well as satisfaction.

Act III, “Sensation”, focuses on perception and cognition. Perception is a dynamic process of creating order and meaning. Research in behavioral economics shows that small design cues can influence decision-making. People will eat more popcorn when it’s served in a giant box, even if the popcorn is stale! Color and form are gateways to multisensory design; tactile packaging helps people recognize products even when they can’t see them.

Design Is Storytelling is about design processes and how to talk about them. Designers use stories to stir emotions and quell uncertainty, to illustrate facts and sway opinions. The process of using an app or planning a trip builds over time, supported along the way with sounds, sights, and physical feedback. Roadblocks and obstacles mar the experience and slow us down (dead batteries, rejected credit cards, or a senseless onslaught of pop-up windows). Each scene in these everyday dramas can be pleasurable or cumbersome, depending on how the experience has been planned.

I loved writing this book as part of my work at Cooper Hewitt. The book is full of playful pictures, which tell their own stories alongside the written ones. I couldn’t have created this book without support and inspiration from my museum colleagues, especially Pamela Horn and Matthew Kennedy in our Cross-Platform Publishing department.


Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, educator, and designer. She is Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Take advantage of your 10% member discount and order your copy of Design Is Storytelling from SHOP Cooper Hewitt!

Illustrations by Jennifer Tobias

Design Is Storytelling book cover, designed by Jason Gottlieb (Cooper Hewitt, 2017)

Featured Image: Angelo Testa, Textile Design The Dance, 1950s. Pen and black ink on paper

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