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What can a musician’s story do to influence the design process?

There was a singer in a smoky room, the smell of wine and cheap perfume……

Last night I was sitting at my computer ready to finalize my entry for today but I was struggling with its content and presentation. The topic is about integrating the human and social aspect to space.

Interesting however it needed some story to make it real.

I decided to take a break and watch The Voice instead.

They are getting down to the top 6 in the competition and what competition it is. Each participant is strong, unique and has the chops to make it all the way. I have my personal favourite and I am sure if you watch the show you have yours. The thing that got me was the strong sense of story that is a big part of what these artists use to engage the audience. Sure, a singer needs to bring passion and connection in order to engage with their audience and emotion is a huge part of that journey but the story of how they get there each time, what their song choices mean to them and how different each singer interprets the song’s meaning was what made the connection to the artist for me.

I recently saw a performance by Adele where she took the time between her songs to talk to her audience and share some of the story behind her music. Something as simple as telling a story allows us to connect with the artist just a little bit. Considering these artists sometimes have millions of fans it seems a little unrealistic to think that you can have a personal connection to them but then there is that feeling that connects their creation to something in your life. The passion, the pain, the joy, the emotion, the love, whatever it may be.

What can a designer take away from an experience like that?

The analogy of creating connection with an audience is not the same for a designer when they create space or is it? Imagine the people who use the place you create on a daily basis. If it is a place that the public can access then the notion that many, many people can engage with it and feel something is not so farfetched even if you cannot or will ever have a personal connection to them.

What’s the story you want to convey that connects your design to your audience; the people who occupy and use that space?

Last week I attended the IDC (Interior Designers of Canada) yearly roundtable presentation at Construct Canada where an interesting, thought provoking discussion occurred around story and how the story behind design can address some key issues in today’s design world.

Research was at the forefront of discussion and the presentations demonstrated how research can play an integral role to inform and affect the design of space. What became apparent is through the ease of access to information in today’s world design thinking is quickly evolving beyond the notion of space solutions being based solely on known planning standards alone.

It was exciting to see the level of innovation that exists in the Interior Design profession and the diversity of experience that the speakers brought to their presentations was exceptional. The projects demonstrated a connection to the public, a passion for solving design problems for people and making space that is based on the connection between community and its use of space.

The strength of the work and its connection to community really hit home with me.

We are big on story around here and we were not disappointed when it came to each of the presentations. The story behind each project gave these projects real personality and the work demonstrated what space design can do to influence and engage a community.

Without a story it would have been difficult to demonstrate the strength of the social aspect of the work.

The idea that spaces need to fundamentally support community was a driving influence in these presentations. Technology weighed heavily into many of the projects as a way to articulate the issues of the communities where the projects resided but also was conspicuously vacant when the design dictated. In some cases the absence of technology was the catalyst for building community as a way to tear down some of the barriers technology can create between human interactions.

Enticing play through direct human contact was more important to some of the solutions than using technology as a driver to engage people. There was a strong push to create a connection by the community to itself as a way for people to connect to the place and to each other instead of the connection to technology as a way to create social engagement.

One on one connection between place and its occupants is not unlike the feeling you get when a songwriter’s story is speaking directly to you.

Can a story somehow help change the design process?

It was clear that the story, as a catalyst for change, behind these projects also helped with engaging the community to accept and participate in the design process. Through the use of a variety of tools and processes the community was engage directly to provide input encouraging active promotion for the inception of the physical design and in some cases participation in the construction process. The teams created opportunity for the community to engage the design process in order to get real life accounts of how their daily lives are affected by their surroundings and how the design solutions could affect their use of the space.

Urban planners have used the method of consensus building for centuries. As a method for interior design consensus building through community engagement was demonstrated as a very powerful tool to build social acceptance and gain the buy-in of the project’s stakeholders.

It all sounds so fun and enlightening but what about the elephant in the room?

Time is money and money trees are hard to come by these days.

How these firms were able to dedicate resources to soft metrics and detailed research while remaining competitive was something that we all were highly interested in hearing more about. There is certainly no single solution to deal with the complexity of factors to consider such as talent, time and cost each of which were the common challenges faced on each of the projects.

The common approach was one of reallocation of resources.

The idea that the more investigation, research and thinking that goes into a project in the front end the less re-work, change and value engineering goes into the later stages of the project was a common risk that each of these project teams were willing to take. It seemed to work as a common approach and was proven by 3 different firms across 3 distinct sectors of the design industry; hospitality, health care and education.

So, can community engagement work every time we need to solve a design problem? Does investing time in discovery lead to building a better mousetrap? Does discovering the underlying story, finding the passions and drivers of community allow a space to better respond to its users?

Can we as designers connect with the occupants of space in a similar way a songwriter connects with us?

Deep down in the places that we rarely visit when thinking about solving design problems.





About this Author: Ralph Dopping (199 Posts)

A quirky sense-o-humour coupled with an indelible sense of stylish sarcasm makes it difficult to take the world too seriously doesn't it? My faves: fun, passion and hard work. I work here everyday:

BetsyKCross 1 Like

This really has me thinking. Constructing a space as I would a story because I want to make the auience feel what I feel. Interesting. Or maybe you're looking for the story in the unconstructed space? The one yet to be created like the sculptor who says he's just removing the unecessary material in order to uncover the "story" of the sculpture.

It feels like an intuitive project- one where you listen and watch the community and see what fits. It would be fun to be challenged economically. You'd have to e creativ, just like when writing a story with a limited vocabulary, to evoke the right emotion with simple words.

I'm in love with story-telling. Design? I rearrange furniture all the time. That's it. But it sure makes a difference.

rdopping moderator

 @BetsyKCross Very cool Betsy. Great comment. There are two very important things to me in your response.


First off the notion that looking for the story in the yet to be constructed space through the observation of how a community functions. That's exactly the idea with the research necessary to understand what the form of the project needs to take. That's such a great way to put it.


Second. Working with the tools you have to create the space and tell the story. For instance, we often approach projects using regional materials as a way to strengthen the bond between the community and the project. Using a vernacular to reinforce the story of a place. Now, I extracted that from the notion of a limited vocabulary in a bit of a different way but it makes such good sense when you think about translating emotion with limited resources.


Nicely done. Thank you for your perspective on this piece. Simply fantastic. Cheers!

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience 1 Like

I think this is an interesting view, because really you are designing spaces so that people can create their own stories as well. I do some work with commercial construction, and see how easy it is for many people to lose sight of the end user's experience, to design for other designers and not for people.


I like the Adele reference, because most great musical performers do incorporate storytelling into their act, and I believe it has a huge impact on the experience of the audience.

rdopping moderator 1 Like

Hey  @Adam | Customer Experience  would love to hear more about your experience with the commercial construction industry. I wonder if there is time in your future for a quick discussion. I would really appreciate the perspective.


I just love the sentiment that musicians carry with the art of storytelling and how it has such a relevance to creating emotion with their audience. I will make that happen in this industry if it kills me. ;-)

Hajra 1 Like

I like the way in which you take one topic and connect it to the topic of concern! You have a way with words and you are brilliant at it! As I rush for exams and try to catch up on blog reading, can I just tell us how fabulously you weave lessons together? :)

Latest blog post: Inspiration, Laziness, Secrets

rdopping moderator

 @Hajra  That makes my day Hajra. You do understand the value of positive feedback and as a recipient of that I am thankful. Cheers!

barrettrossie 1 Like

PS: This is crazy. First there's Roy Orbison... then... Hoagie Carmichael is it?... but you write about Adele. I can't keep up with you. But at least its all the good stuff. You have good taste, sir.

barrettrossie 2 Like

Ralph, there are definitely parallels here. 


*The more work that goes into the front end, the better the result -- This holds true for all kinds of communication development. Songs, marketing, design.


* Can a story somehow help change the design process? --  A great story is essential for a great message in marketing. You just have to remember that your intended audience (customers, influencers, people who are going to frequent a designed space) is an integral part of the story. Perhaps even the hero. I guess in a designer's world, the story is what rationalizes the design. The design fits the story and the needs of the audience, even though it may not tell the story. But it does play a role in the narrative, doesn't it? 


* Adele talking to her audience -- Along with sharing a story, she was educating. Education is a key part of marketing today. That holds true whether you're marketing software or services like design and marketing. A great case study is a powerful tool no matter what industry you're in. 




rdopping moderator

 @barrettrossie Great comment Barrett. What's gotten into you? ;-) Thanks for offering the viewpoint from your perspective on marketing. It's great to see that there are some clear parallels. What's important to me here is the recognition that story or narrative accepted by community is inherent in the space. That's a fantastic way to look at it. 


Cheers and thanks for taking the time to drop in.