The one where I say Stefan Sagmeister is wrong

The one where I say Stefan Sagmeister is wrong

Chris Wolfgang's Layout avatar

I absolutely adored this video of Stefan Sagmeister: “You Are Not a Storyteller.” Mostly because of the way he says “bullshit.” I defy anyone to tell me it is not the most lyrical pronunciation of an obscenity ever.

The premise of said video is Sagmeister taking exception to the concept that every creative professional is calling themselves a storyteller these days. “Why would you want to be a storyteller if you design roller coasters? Or if you are story telling, then the story you are telling is bullshit.”

I laughed. He’s still wrong.

Kristian Berge working 1913

Photo courtesy of New Old Stock

I’ll admit, he made me chuckle. Content is king, it’s all about the story, what story are you trying to tell with this?, what’s our story?, I can help you tell your story. If you’re working in the design industry, you’ve heard all of those more than once. You’ve probably even said them.

But here’s where I differ from Sagmeister (okay, in addition to the wildly successful design life in New York City, shush): I freaking love that people are saying these things. I adore that professionals in other industries are currently obsessed with story. And I’ll tell you why.

Sagmeister suggests that the storytelling of roller-coaster design, for example, is “like this little itsy bitsy little thing, yes, you go through space, and yes, you see other spaceships, and yes, — that’s your story? That’s a fucking bullshit story, that’s boring.”

I object, sir! I object with the same fervor that I object to trolls who posit that art is not for everyone. Art is for everyone. Storytelling is art. And it’s not up to any of us to tell another person they’re not allowed into our tree fort.

Let’s define storytelling.

Explorer XVII Satellite

Photo courtesy of New Old Stock

Of course, Sagmeister defines “storyteller” a bit more narrowly than I do: “people who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make feature films…”

Wait, is he talking about someone who just writes novels or someone who’s had one published? Is self-published okay, or does it have to be through a house? Does it have to be Random House, or can it be the LLC down the street? Do you have to be on The New York Times’ best seller list before you can call yourself a storyteller?

So many distressing rules. Let’s have none of that.

Storytelling is simply organizing one’s thoughts around a theme. You put one thought next to another, you string them together in as coherent a way as you can, and voilà. You’ve told a story. You’ve gone through a creative process that leads to organized thought, and that’s amazing. The world needs more people who practice that. And if you say “Why?” then you need to practice organized thought more.

But doesn’t that belittle the word?

Queensland Book Depot

Photo courtesy of New Old Stock

Sagmeister suggests that people have been lulled into thinking, “I’ve seen a lot of film, so I must be able to do one… oh, I’ve watched a philharmonic, that’s why I’m a virtuoso violin player.”

Yes? And? The world (including potential clients and first dates) will soon find out what you are capable of no matter what you call yourself. If I introduced myself as a professional violinist, it would take exactly two follow-up questions to ascertain that no, I am in fact not. Anyone who paid me to play the violin would very quickly regret it and never do it again.

If someone wants to pay you to tell stories — whether using design, film, or the written word — they will soon find out if you can. It’s not a skill you can fake.

Are some people better storytellers than others? Obviously.

Am I worried that designers who call themselves storytellers dilute the value of the word? Not a bit.

Anyone can choose to devote themselves to getting better at story, but not everyone will. The people who make a craft of it are identifiable, just as craftsmen are identifiable in every discipline. But if you have to prove you’re great at storytelling before you can call yourself one, I quit because Neil Gaiman is still out there being more awesome than I’ll ever be.

So no, Sagmeister doesn’t get to tell you you’re not a storyteller because your story is a “little itsy bitsy little thing” or because you don’t make feature films or because of some other arbitrary benchmark.

Go ahead. Say you tell stories through the sites you design.

For the record, I’d much rather ride a roller coaster designed by someone who thinks of themselves as a storyteller. Who doesn’t want to pretend they’re in outer space for a few seconds?

Comments (1 )

  1. John Locke

    August 14, 2014

    Glad to see I'm not the only one who called "bullshit" on Sagmeister's stance. Part of me wants to think he said it just to be controversial.

    Stories are so much more than novels and films. Storytelling is even more than mythology, religion, and philosophy. Storytelling is woven into every aspect of our lives, and every profession that exists.

    Architecture? That's storytelling.
    What about marketing? Definitely storytelling.
    Music, or any of the arts? It's all about storytelling.
    Politics? That's all about the stories that are leaders tell, and the stories we tell about ourselves, how we identify ourselves.

    Let's take something boring, like insurance sales. Is *this* storytelling?
    The story were telling there is that we will protect our loved ones after our death, meaning we are doing the right thing. If we don't buy insurance, then the story becomes our left ones are left destitute.

    So even in something as rudimentary as insurance, there is a high level of storytelling involved.

    Artists and fancypants designers such as Mr. Sagmeister may express themselves how they wish, but it is our choice whether to believe them or not. I for one believe that storytelling is an inseparable part of our world.

    • Chris Wolfgang

      August 14, 2014

      It definitely crossed my mind that the video might have been just to stir the pot. Surely anyone in a creative field wouldn't really have such a narrow definition? Because, as you say, storytelling is inherent to so many industries -- one could argue it's part of every single one.

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