Storytellers Are Bullsh*t

What does it mean to be a storyteller and who should be defining themselves as one? Do rollercoaster designers fit in this category? Are customers the truest storytellers?

Wildstory founder Marc Gutman discusses with friend and 25+ year graphic designer Jay Ferracane about the answers to these questions and more after watching the thought-provoking video, You Are Not a Storyteller by Stefan Sagmeister.

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Video Transcript

Jay Ferracane 0:04
Let's explore the space.

Marc Gutman 0:06
Let's explore the space. All right, I am here with Jay Ferracane celebrated, designer creative and all around awesome, dude. And recently, Jay and I were doing some work together. And Jay turned me on to this idea or this this, this video of Stefan sagmeister that's titled you are not a storyteller before we get into that, because I just I love this video, we're gonna watch it and then talk about it cuz I think it's really relevant two minutes of extreme relevance. Jay, who is Stefan Sagmeister? Cuz I didn't even know like I, I watched this video and I'm like, Who is this guy?

Jay Ferracane 0:42
Well, Stefan Sagmeister is is a designer, I think Austrian born worked out in New York for years. But I think his real claim to fame was that he kind of made designers realize every once in a while that you should take some time for yourself. So he used to do these, these sabbaticals. And then for like a year, he would just do work that tried to make him happy. And it resulted in like a body of work about being happy. But he his work was really widely regarded. I think he's won like a Grammy for some, you know, album design stuff. And I was always appreciative of his design even. And I've known about him for a really long time. You know, he I think he's in the the world of like, the pentagrams, and stuff like that of the world. But Stephen Sagmeister, and his partner, Jessica Walsh, who now runs her own outfit, she still continues, but I think Stephen does more of this kind of like, personal work kind of stuff. But pre that that was this video that I was sharing with you. Because, I mean, we've all heard it in conversations that, you know, everyone wants to be a storyteller.

And, you know, what's that really mean? And should you say it, and I look at myself as such a, I don't know, like a tradesperson and design that. I've never considered myself a storyteller. But it did me a stroke, it struck a chord with me and why people say that, and a lot of times, I think as a designer, my job is to unpack what people are really trying to say, or what's the reason behind that? And I have some thoughts on why people get into the storytelling. It they use storytelling as a way to describe their process or what they're attempting to do. So.

Marc Gutman 2:14
Yeah. And it's such an interesting topic to me. I mean, remember, several years ago, you'd say you're a storyteller, and people thought that was all cool. And they'd be like, tell me about that. And, and it meant different things. And it still does to different people. But now it's like, literally, I think every single website I hit says, We are storytellers, everybody's Instagram says I'm a storyteller, and everyone wants to be a storyteller.

And I think there's a lot of confusion around storytelling. And it's just an interesting topic to me. I don't know if I've landed, I firmly believe that as the way we communicate as humans is through stories, does that make everyone a storyteller? Especially when it comes to business? Right? Like, is everyone a storyteller? And so what I want to do is I want to go ahead and share this video. It's two minutes, and we'll go ahead and watch it together and then we can talk about it. Sure. Okay, and this is, should be seeing all of it now. Because I do want to give proper credit to the people that publish this and this is from Stefan is it Sagmeister?

Jay Ferracane 3:21
Sagmeister. Yeah.

Marc Gutman 3:22
I noticed you gave it an O like a, like a sort of German fog. sagmeister. And this is from the folks at FITC, we'll go ahead and we'll play it now.

Stefan Sagmeister 3:38
Okay. Hi, my name is Stefan Sagmeister. I am a Austrian graphic designer who lives in books in New York City. But I'm actually quite critical of the storytelling thing. I think that the oldest storytellers are not sorry. Recently, I read an interview with somebody who designs rollercoasters, and he referred to himself as a storyteller. No fuckhead you are not a storyteller. You're a rollercoaster designer. And that's fantastic and more power to you. But why would you want to be a storyteller if your design rollercoasters? Or if you are storytelling that the story that you tell is bullshit. It's like this little Itsy Bitsy little thing? Yes, you go through the space and guess you see other spaceships and get that's your story?

That's a fucking bullshit story. That's boring. People who actually tell stories meaning people who write novels and take feature films don't see themselves as storytellers it's all the people who are not storytellers, who kind of for strange reasons, because it's in the air. Suddenly now want to be storytellers. There is this fallacy out there. I don't think that I fell in fell for it. But somehow, maybe unconsciously I did. You know, that user field. I've seen a lot of film so I must be able to do one and of course, this is the most stupidest thought ever, you know, it's like oh, I Watch the Philharmonic. That's why I'm a virtuoso violin player. You know, I'm not even though I've watched a lot of Philharmonic concerts, I think by now in our space, meaning in the space of design, it sort of took on the mantle of bullshit. You know, now everybody's a storyteller.

Marc Gutman 5:34
Just letting it play out there a little bit, so we can give proper credit to those that published it. But Wow, carries on the mantle of bullshit?

Jay Ferracane 5:45
There's so much to unpack right?

Marc Gutman 5:48
So much to unpack so, the mantle of bullshit. I mean, I was giggling and laughing during that, and I certainly saw that you were I mean, like, what are your What are your first thoughts is like—?

Jay Ferracane 5:57
Well, I remember the first time I saw it, number one, you know, I can't pull off the sport coat. And and, and, and and impression like he was and I was so genuinely entertained by the fact that he was being so honest, and calling out people on their stuff. And I guess where I came back to, when I when I first sat with it, I thought I probably the first time I saw it just really just thought it was funny. And like, man, did he wake up and have some shooting coffee or something that morning? And and then, you know, the more I thought about it, and I think I saw that thing years ago. And and but I've thought about a lot since then. And I've tried to figure out, you know, why? Why has the industry taken on this mantle of, of bullshit?

Number one, there's so many, I think there's so many options for clients out there today, that everyone's got to wrap themselves up in something, right, we all kind of do that take on a persona or two. But I think that this storytellers thing was a phenomenon that came out of not unlike, like, I purposely went against the grain when people were there. For some reason, there was this weird fear of like calling yourself a designer, I'm a graphic designer, that's what I was formally trained to do. And I think that makes me a pretty capable communicator. But it does give me a position of where I enter communication from.

And I think storytelling maybe puts this this number one, it puts a bigger number umbrella on it and allows people to be more capable, or at least positioned themselves that they are more capable, because they don't have to really describe what their entry point is and where they're coming from. But to the point of, you know, when he was saying, this, this fact about like, I can, you know, if I watch an opera, my a virtuoso, there is so much information out there in education today that you can watch a video and go out and tell people, you know, something. So I think that what he was probably sensing was some frustration. And I would I wonder, actually how, how close this was to him thinking about, you know, leaving professional practice, because he maybe he was just like that up at that point. Because that dude, and his outfit did really just great, creative, very original, graphic design. And, you know, maybe he was just, like, frustrated to the point, like, I'm not gonna be, you know, shielded about this anymore.

The more I thought about it, though, and it was funny, because you and I have talked a little bit about this, and the phenomenon of, and there are some outfits that work this way. But the phenomenon that work, like a project, it's something that might have been called the story to be told, you know, in the Stefan Sagmeister, I hate you world. I think there's this notion to that a lot of people think that the project gets this, it's dropped on the table. And this is one thing I've been thinking a lot about knowing you and I were going to get together and talk about this. But when you start to say, Hey, I'm a storyteller, is that a way to prepare people for the reality of a design process, and I call it a design process, going through a logo, there is a fallacy that people think I have a conversation with you and I come back a week later, and you give me this thing that will be on a gas station, billboard or on a wall.

And to me, it's iterative, it's a narrative. And that was the only thing I can start to think of. Is that why we've gotten into this thing called storytelling because we're trying to let people know that it's not completely defined, and it's going to be a journey And so let's call it a story and follow us on this journey or this story? I don't know that I've been dwelling on that actually quite a bit in the last week or so. Because but you and I both know the reality of making anything is never airdrop it into your clients lap at least it's not in my world. It's a lot of back and forth and and the story gets written together If anything, but to me I've always wondered is it has storytelling become this thing because people are trying to explain like, you're gonna have to get involved in a narrative. I don't know. Maybe that's where it comes from. But yeah.

Marc Gutman 9:54
Yeah, it's it's so I mean, so much to unpack on top of your unpacking. Right, like You know what resonates for me out of that so much is when he talks about his head go to the Philharmonic and does that mean I can be, you know, a great violin player because very, you know, early in my career I was a story editor in the movie business and a core. Part of that is just taking in scripts. And I could never understand why everybody thought they had a story worth telling. Everyone thought that their life story was worthy of a movie. I think it's primarily because of what Stephen Stagg sagmeister says is that now went to the movies, they get it, they're like, Hey, I can make this into a movie. And I was like, very clearly No, no one, not a single one that came in was worth reading. They weren't interesting to me.

And much like a classic pianist or something like that I was trained in classic cinematic storytelling, which means that there's a three acts structure beginning middle and an end, a likeable, or at least intriguing hero that has obstacles in their way and has to move from something they want towards something, they need all these things as a very strict definition. And I remember when I got into branding and marketing, and I had the same reaction as sagmeister, I was like, This is crazy. Everyone's calling themselves a storyteller. These are not stories, and I was really myopic on my definition of story.

Now I've, since come off that and I learn, I've learned that storytelling has this different sort of definition. And I think, when I heard you speaking, that's really what I started kind of going through, like, what are these definitions of story versus storytelling versus narrative? I mean, is the roller coaster designer really trying to tell a story? Are they trying to communicate anything other than thrill and excitement? And, you know, things like that? So yeah, I mean, and you and I have had this conversation offline, so much about just what is the purpose? What is the job? What is the function of design, and a lot of times it's to communicate, and it's not to be seen, it's not to be noticed, but it's to communicate as a very important job. It is that storytelling? like is wayfinding storytelling?

Jay Ferracane 12:18

Marc Gutman 12:19
You know, like, all the great Helvetica stuff we love from, you know, the New York subway and I mean, and the recent MTA but rebrand, I mean, that stuff is like, is that telling the story, that storytelling?

Jay Ferracane 12:32
And that's, that's totally where I think it gets it screwed up. And not to belabor the point about titles, but like, you know, storytellers, if that's going to be the thing that somebody wants to put a label on him, I do think it comes back to this thing that, you know, design is about, it's, it's a it what Yeah, I've told you this quote, that if you can design a city, you can design a spoon, or if you can design a spoon, you can design a city, meaning like, hey, once you understand that, that your job is is to do this thing, it doesn't matter what medium it gets put into it. And still to this day, it kind of trips me up to hear a designer say I'm a UI designer.

So okay, so if your friend said, Hey, I need a T shirt, you wouldn't make a T shirt. You know, like, I'm not a T shirt designer, but I designed lots of T shirts. And I'm a graphic designer I've done to design a ton of UI, and I poked my own eye out through my glasses if I had to only design UI, and to me, I guess it comes back to this notion that designs job is to just put reason into things. And I don't think even all stories have reasons, because sometimes they can be whimsical, right? Maybe that is the reason.

But I remember seeing this talk if we're going to kind of Sagmeister was an early design hero of mine. And so it was David Carson. And I saw David Carson do a talk once about it was Oh, he showed this layout he did for a conference he got asked to attend it was called the bravery of design or something like that. And it was the image was his father, who was a test pilot getting into an aircraft. And he goes, and he basically put that up because he goes, what we do isn't dangerous. He goes, unless I'm designing like pharmaceutical packaging or something where if somebody reads it wrong, there's a problem. Right? And and he was saying that that's fucking dangerous. And he pointed at his, you know, his dad in the 60s, or whenever it was getting into a, into an aircraft.

And and I do I just think that there's something of that I think people feel like they need to inflate around what it is they're really doing. And that's why I really do look at what I do. It's much more like a trade than it is art for sure. And even the way I approach it, it's like, I'm going to show you some things but you're going to react to them and then I'm going to capitalize those back into it. So it becomes the things you need it to be it's not about me and so a lot of times storytelling is is like your take on something to it has a very emotional bent and you know that's a major difference between art and design is that you know art is really about you trying to express some personal feeling or emotion where design should really really it's it can have expression in it, but it's really about communicating ideas or information. And so storytelling does it get it gets cloudy, but maybe it is a safety mechanism for people to just shield up like, Hey, I don't. I was a marketing manager A long time ago, but all of a sudden, here I am, you know, trying to help you rebuild your brand. And if I tell you that where I came from, that's it. That's a hard entry point. Right? So I don't know.

Marc Gutman 15:27
ya know, and you and I have collaborated recently on a bunch of identities. I mean, those are really stories. You know, when I think about them, they're like, you know, there's, we want certain emotions, we want you to think of certain categories, we want you to see this and say, Okay, this is a tool brand, for example. We're not really telling stories within that work, and I wouldn't, I think that's okay. Like, we don't have to, like, that's not the intention or the purpose. And I think even we get conflated a bit when as branders and marketers we say, Okay, well, it's the sum of all these parts, it's your visual, it's your tagline. It's, you know, your, you know, your copy on your website. It's, it's all these and then now your that's your story, you know, but like, is it?

Jay Ferracane 16:15
I think it's, it's funny, too, because one thing that I try and get really clear with my clients that when I first start working with them is is that there's a difference between branding and brand. So brand and branding are two totally separate things. brand is the promise you want to, you know, bring to the world branding is the signals that get them there. And you know, in this in this case of like, you know, when we work on identity and stuff like that, I think we're we're way more in the signal building camp. Because the, the cool thing about building a brand for me, and developing the branding that we'll do that is that all those signals, all that stuff gets set up so that those stories can happen in there. But that's all the people interacting with it. So if anyone, this is interesting that we've talked this out a little bit, but if anyone is a storyteller and a brand, it's usually the people that support the brand, it would almost be the customer, right? It's pretty meta.

Marc Gutman 17:12
So there's the old adage, a brand isn't what you say it is, it's what they say it is. And I think that—

Jay Ferracane 17:18
So then, who's the storyteller in that?

Marc Gutman 17:20
Yeah, the customer, right? It's the external world. I mean, you know, you can kind of like, you can tell all the stories you want about yourself, but it doesn't really matter what you think, it's what everyone thinks, you know, about yourself.

Jay Ferracane 17:33
I know, and that's it totally it because I, yeah, you know, for along the line of storytellers is a word that I never got in, it's my brushes with the advertising world is a lot of times, people who make stuff just generally get thrown into this category as creatives. And I think that's kind of a weird label, too, because I think that an art director is a, it's a role and a skill set that is different than a designer sometimes, or a graphic designer, right. And it could be different than a set designer, and it could be different than, and so but in certain worlds, all of that gets stuffed into.

And so I think whenever these labels come out, it's just a way it's just a way for people to soften, or create a softer landing place for you to understand where you come from. And well, you know, my, my, my love of music and the background and the things that I grew up around was like early punk rock, especially DC kind of stuff. And in those days, you didn't go to the ER, you didn't even go to tower, you would have friends that gave you like cassettes that were made off of cassettes that were made off of two other cassettes. And I remember every once while people would like hold the microphone to like TV and record stuff into it.

And I still, to this day, don't know where this soundbite came, but it's this very posture II kind of voice it was in between one of the songs that was on this mixtape given to me. And the guy says, I have news for the world. It says new wave is dead. And it says new wave is just a way of saying that you like any names, all these like sub genres of music that was extremely not popular at that point. And then he ended it with like, these categorizations of all these music types that people wedge them under new wave. And he said it's because you don't want to get kicked out of the party because people won't give you drugs anymore.

And so like but it was kind of funny, because if I if I think about that, that's probably this defense mechanism that all humans are do a lot. They they put some falsehood around themselves, or at least a softening device. So that either you can't really assign what it is and or you maybe reassign it and it's it's a funny, it's a funny thing. And I think that's that's, you know, not me ever asking, you know Stefan about this, but like I would bet his intent is is call it what it would call it what it is, and just be authentic about it because to me, that's the best form of graphic design and is when you can, like, make the brand with the things that it really is. And that's not necessarily storytelling. To me, that's this very, we were just talking about this before this call started ingredients and parts.

Marc Gutman 20:13
Yeah, totally and like, it's just, it seems like this catch all, you know, being a storyteller, this thing that is just like, you don't know how to describe yourself, you don't know what it is you think, you know, and I just recently posted on Instagram a carousel that was called stop copying your competitors. And and it's because we all don't know, you know what to say about ourselves. And we don't know how to differentiate, we don't know what category—we want to be special. Right? And, and I'm no different. I want to be special, but we're not, you know, we need to understand—

Jay Ferracane 20:46
Aw, you're special!

Marc Gutman 20:47
Oh, Go on Go on. But you have this idea that like everyone's a storyteller is just crazy to me. And, and I and I do you think I think the roller coaster example that he uses is of the extreme, but I think it comes into all sorts of things like you know, even there's a lot of functions in marketing today where you know, people are claiming to be storytellers like in paid media. You're not a storyteller, you're an advertiser, you know?

Jay Ferracane 21:11
Yeah. And that's fine, though. That is great.

Marc Gutman 21:13
It's great. And you should Yeah, and you know, sometimes you use storytelling as a mechanism or a tool to to get your advertising across. But that doesn't make you a storyteller, per se. And I just think it's interesting that we all and it's in it's become this thing that like, like, people just want to be that like, it's like, we use that as our brand. And it's almost become that. I think you might even been the person that sent me the bland book, which was a mock site of like, what branding and and and all these agencies have become and storyteller would be front and center right there. You know, right on. We are visionary storytellers looking to change the world, you know, one brand at a time.

Jay Ferracane 21:55
Well, and I think that's, that's why it let's just call it that. Well, the creative to use a big loose term, and the creative industry, every you know, so often has to kind of go find its new catch all phrase to that everyone can kind of like over the next five years reassigns themselves to and then we feel that we shed that again, and you become something else. But it is it's just an interesting phenomenon that people get into these traps where they're like, I'm worried about telling you what I am and in the in the rollercoaster guys, since you know, I found myself drifting off thinking about that, that, you know, like maybe what he does is so complex that if he told somebody what he really did, you know, maybe he's more of a mathematician than anything, because you got to figure out a lot of gravity shit, I bet in there, right? You know, it's like gravity and like, what if there's a fat guy and a little guy in the in the car together? What's that gonna do to the story? Like, like, how?

Marc Gutman 22:50
I don't know, how hard is it to say I'm a kick ass roller coasters? Like, like, like, like, everyone understands that.

Jay Ferracane 22:54
But it are people comfortable doing that, too? Like, I think that's that's what it comes down to. So I don't know, it has to be something about the the palatability of the world you're trying to market to Oh, man, this is resonating. People want to hear story. So I'm going to be set tell people I'm that right. So, yeah, it's, I don't know, I guess it was a delight. Especially when I saw that because I think I personally would just really rather designers be designers and communicators. That that's that's probably the better term. I would rather people say I'm a communicator than a storyteller because that is kind of what we do. I think it's, it can be super boring shit sometimes and not that there's not boring stories, but at least it has less of a mantle around it too.

Marc Gutman 23:40
Less of a mantle of bullshit.

Jay Ferracane 23:45
And he has that. That Tyrolean like *bull* shit. Like there was an umlaut in there for a second.

Marc Gutman 23:54
Angry Yeah, you know?

Jay Ferracane 23:56

Marc Gutman 23:56
I love it. Well, Jay, this was awesome. I just I enjoyed talking about this topic with you. It's it fascinates me and like I said, Thank you for turning me on to that video and like kind of blew my mind and was just really cool to chat about it.

Jay Ferracane 24:09
No, I am. I'm the king of derailing your day with Oh, yeah, on that topic here. Watch these six videos, you know me so but you're welcome. And I'm, I'm glad to continue to distract you on a daily basis.

Marc Gutman 24:21
Thank you. I'm looking forward to my next distraction.

Jay Ferracane 24:25
Talk to you soon.

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