Design, storytelling, and our environment: Critical insights from an empirical study with storytellers

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

Abstract / Description of output

In 2021, the UK Design Council published Beyond Net Zero, introducing its Systemic Design Framework to help designers address complex challenges, such as climate change (Council, 2021). The framework outlines the 4 key roles that designers can play in responding to systemsoriented challenges, being systems thinker, designer and maker, connector and convenor, and finally, as leader and storyteller. The relationship between the practice of design, and the practice of storytelling, and the role of narrative is receiving more attention from designers and researchers, whether as deployed by designers or by researchers in understanding design practices and design sensemaking skills (Beckman & Berry, 2010; Bleeker, 2009; Childs, Zhao, & Grigg, 2013; Dillon & Howe, 2003; Lloyd & Oak, 2018; Lupton, 2017). Recognizing that storytelling is a fundamental mode of human interaction and knowledge exchange shared and employed by most everyone (Bruner, 1991; Polkinghorne, 1988), we suggest that existing design research involving storytelling may be finding and reporting on what is a naturally occurring activity in socially-oriented design practice contexts, but missing critical and nuanced perspectives on the types, forms and manner of stories that can address systems challenges and foster change. In this paper, we discuss empirical work from a funded UK research project that examines the relationship between sustainability, environment and storytelling practices, from the position of professional storytellers which may better inform both content and application of storytelling approaches for design. Data collection methods involve a series of surveys, ethnographic observations in storytelling workshops relating to the environment, and semi-structured interviews with professional storytellers. Preliminary analysis suggests that storytelling requires greater institutional support to foster the practice for younger generations; storytellers are enthusiastic about sharing their practice with other disciplines to construct new narratives for addressing climate change with wider audiences, and; storytellers see themselves as “cultural caretakers” of collective stories and raised concerns regarding storytelling approaches aligned to the projective nature of design practices. Our discussion here will focus on two preliminary recommendations: first, that storytelling as practice be formally included within higher education design curricula, in partnership with storytellers themselves, and; second, to facilitate new storytelling content that addresses social injustices and societal imbalances that highlights the potential impact and courses of action to mitigate climate apartheid. We outline that these recommendations should also ensure that both disciplinary practices of design and storytelling are able to thrive, survive and deliver effective change through “shifting the narrative” associated with complex climate challenges our communities are preparing to address.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign for Adaptation
Subtitle of host publicationCumulus Conference Proceedings Detroit 2022
EditorsAmy Lazet
PublisherCumulus Association
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9798218079017
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2022

Publication series

NameCumulus Conference Proceedings
ISSN (Electronic)2490-046X

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • storytelling
  • design practice
  • social Justice
  • environment
  • climate change
  • systems thinking


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