to design a purposeful story by many


I recently thought about our recent experiments with open design and story as Purposeful Storytelling. Stories have long been used for the purpose to inform, sell or persuade, but we’re onto something that involves story to ignite action and THEN do all of the above. I mean using storytelling to solve problems, to create a fun experiential learning environment and use it as a tool to covey a complex solution.

Lance Weiler, Jorgen van der Sloot and I played a bit with designs and prototyping sessions, one of which I was invited to run at U.Lab’s Groundbreaker series. Our 60-minute Open Design Challenge (ODC) is a little bit different each time since we’re refining the process with each session. But every time we use storytelling, game mechanics and collaboration to design a solution around a Wish for The Future.

The ODC has three purposes:
1. participants experience what agility & collaboration mean in today’s culture industry
2. we R&D a system to solve problems using collaboration, game mechanics and story
3. we test and refine storytelling as a way to transfer knowledge, create empathy and call to action

Here’s a rundown of what we did.
Start absurd. First, the entire group had 4 minutes to generate 100 wishes around the premise to make the world work for 100% of humanity. Yep. We broke the group down into eight categories (urbanization, economy, education, humanity, culture, health, sustainability, government) to have each group focus on one area. A couple of minute later, we read out the wishes and decided the best wish collectively by cheering. Then – in the same manner – we turned the wish into a design question.

“Attempting the impossible widens the mind. Lateral thinking happens when you can’t possibly imagine an immediate answer to a question.”

Then we broke out into three groups: one would build a prototype that helps solving the design question; the storytellers craft a hero’s journey; the third group were the scribes. Their task was to communicate between the groups and to converge the outcomes on a storyboard. We gave every group a simple template that explained the basics of storytelling, design thinking and scribing.

“It was paramount that everyone had a task in the process to give a sense of agency and accountability.”

 53 minutes left. Imagine everything happening at the same time: Some scribes started planning their storyboard while others chose a target audience aka stakeholders, which we communicated to the two other groups. Within the first 5 minutes the scribes received the main characters from the storytelling group, which they passed on to the prototypers after they had given their first pitch to the scribes (within first 10 minutes).

Generally, nobody was allowed to talk without creating something with their hands at the same time. We provided play-doh, pens, butcher paper, paddlepops and other props. We like doing that because tactile activity enhances creativity by igniting both sides of the brain.

“Mayhem and confusion. The ODC leaves participants partly in the unknown to simulate how reality, too, only unfolds gradually. Chaordic time pressure requires us to adapt to change flexibly and creatively.”

The idea was that prototyping and storytelling group couldn’t communicate directly, only through the scribes aka social media. This way the scribes acted as ‘chinese whisperers’, so information between storytellers and prototypers would be filtered and reinterpreted – like in a collaboration between various teams in a company or a creative collective.

To communicate between groups, we had storytellers and prototypers pitching to the scribes. This was combined with a narrative game, in which the answer could only be ‘yes, no or maybe’. This had the purpose that content had to be anticipated and interpreted: empathy in practice. We made sure that information didn’t always flow clearly in order to imitate real life situations. At certain points we appointed narrators to help clarifying crucial aspects, in case the scribes would get stuck.

“One group ensures the flow of information between scattered teams. They are the connective tissue, the keeper of all knowledge, making sure that all elements come together in the end.”

The 2nd pitch later on would allow the scribes to ask questions but no answers were allowed. This had the effect that the prototypers went back and refined their work according to what was still too complex for an audience to grasp.

After 30 minutes we disrupted the flow asking the groups to include sensor technology, an Arduino or Raspberry Pi into their prototype. After ten more minutes the scribes got another brief to tweak and bend story and prototype into one coherent storyboard.

“The prototype is embedded as the significant object of the story. It’s the narrative spark that marries a solution to a strategy.”

Final pitches: We had the scribes tell how they saw the story play out using what they had gotten from the prototyping group. They pitched using their storyboard, which was a scripted wall, like an RSAnimate. The drawings were AMAZING!! After we had heard their story, the storytellers and prototypers explained their approaches and added to the converged version of the story with annotated drawings on the wall. Groundbreaker attracted such a varied bunch of talented people, we had a fantastic outcome.

“We can simulate collective intelligence by ascribing each group one of the three fundamental human brain functions (cf. Peter Kruse): connect deep knowledge (storytellers) and spontaneous creativity (prototypers) by building new unexpected synapses (scribes).”

The session was developed by Ele Jansen (, Sydney), Lance Weiler (, New York) and Jorgen van der Sloot (, Amsterdam). We’re refining the process further to develop a solid rapid prototyping model for experience design but also for kids as a playful approach to collaborate and to learn creative problem solving skills in conjunction with story. Results will be used on two levels: lessons learned about process feed into Ele’s PhD research and into our design for Lance’s Story Design Lab at Columbia University. They will also be published on The prototypes that are generated throughout each Open Design Challenge will be featured for others to pick up on it and develop it further (launch end of October 2012).