BGBS BONUS 057: Jay Ferracane | Storytellers are Bullsh*t
Baby Got Backstory host Marc Gutman partners up with good friend and past guest Jay Ferracane on a special bonus episode about the complexity of defining yourself as a storyteller based on the video, You Are Not a Storyteller by Stefan Sagmeister.
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[10:26] 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 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.
[13:28] What is the function of design? A lot of times it’s to communicate. It’s not to be seen, it’s not to be noticed, but it’s to communicate. It has a very important job, but is that storytelling? Is wayfinding, storytelling?
[14:58] I don’t think even all stories have reasons, because sometimes they can be whimsical, right? Maybe that is the reason.
[18:26] 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 your copy on your website. It’s all this and then now that’s your story.” But is it?
[19:13] The cool thing about building a brand for me and developing the branding 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 is a storyteller in a brand, it’s usually the people that support the brand. It would almost be the customer, right? It’s pretty meta, actually.
[19:49] It’s the external world. You can tell all the stories you want about yourself, but it doesn’t really matter what you think. It’s what everyone thinks about yourself.
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BGBS Episode 41: Jay Ferracane | Angry Bovine | Design Is Not About the Designer
Jay Ferracane 0:02
And that was the only thing I can start to think of is, “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, well, 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, 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.
Marc Gutman 0:48
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the Baby Got Backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like big backstories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman. Hey, I’m Marc Gutman, and today is a little bit of a bonus episode of Baby Got Backstory.
My good friend, Jay Ferracane and I talk a lot about different branding topics, marketing topics all offline when we’re just hanging out. And one of the things that we got written a lot about was storytelling, and kind of this craze about what’s happening with storytelling, and everyone’s calling themselves a storyteller. And then Jay turned me on to this amazing video about two minutes. And we’re gonna link to the audio in this episode from a famous designer named Stefan Sagmeister. And after that little video, and Stefan sets the stage, Jay and I talk about what it means to be a storyteller. And I hope you liked this episode. It’s a little bit of a bonus talking about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart.
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 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? Because I don’t even know like I, I watched this video and I’m like, Who is this guy?
Jay Ferracane 2:41
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 resulted in like a body of work about being happy. But 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 Stefan Sagmeister, and his partner, Jessica Walsh, who now runs her own outfit, she still continues, but I think Stefan 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 in 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, if they use storytelling as a way to describe their process or what they’re attempting to do. So.
Marc Gutman 4:11
Yeah, 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, 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.
Jay Ferracane 5:02
Stefan Sagmeister 5:09
Hi, my name is Stefan sagmeister, a Austrian graphic designer who lives in New York City. I’m actually quite critical of the storytelling thing. I think that the older storytellers are not storytelling. 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 you design rollercoasters? Or if you have 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 yes, that’s the story? That’s a fucking bullshit story. That’s boring.
People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make 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 you sort of feel “I’ve seen a lot of films, so I must be able to do one.” And of course, this is the most stupid thought ever, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve watched the Philharmonic. That’s why I am 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 7:04
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 7:16
So much to unpack right?
Marc Gutman 7:18
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 first thoughts is like, is—
Jay Ferracane 7:27
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 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 shitty coffee or something that morning? And, and then, you know, the more I thought about it, and I saw, 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 umbrella on it and allows people to be more capable, or at least position 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, am I 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 fed 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 at a point like, I’m not going to 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 phenomena of and there are some outfits that work this way, but the phenomenon that work, like a project is 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 is 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 does this 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, well, 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 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 11:20
Yeah, it’s, it’s so I mean, so much to unpack on top of your unpacking. Right? Like, there’s, you know, what resonates for me out of that so much as when he talks about his Hey I 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 Stefan 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, like, 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 act 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. It has 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 learned, 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, 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 13:44
Marc Gutman 13:45
You know, like, all the great Helvetica stuff we love from, you know, the New York subway and I mean, and then recent MTA rebrand, I mean, that stuff is like that telling a story? Is that storytelling?
Jay Ferracane 13:58
And 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 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 design’s job is to just put reason into things.
And I don’t think even all stories have really 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 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 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 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 catalyze 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 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?
Marc Gutman 16:55
This episode brought to you by Wildstory. Wait, isn’t that your company? It is. And without the generous support of wild story, this show would not be possible. A brand isn’t a logo or a tagline. or even your product or a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product service or company. It’s what people say about you, when you’re not in the room. Wildstory helps progressive founders and savvy marketers build purpose driven brands that connect their business goals with the customers they want to serve. So that both the business and the customer needs are met. This results in crazy, happy, loyal customers that purchase again and again. And this is great for business. That sounds like something you and your team might want to learn more about, reach out @ www.wildstory.com. And we’d be happy to tell you more. Now back to our show.
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, and 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 18:45
I think it’s and 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 I that the cool thing about building a brand for me and developing the branding that will do that is that all those signals, all that stuff gets set up so that the 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, actually.
Marc Gutman 19:40
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 so
Jay Ferracane 19:45
Then who’s the storyteller in that?
Marc Gutman 19:47
Yeah, the customer, right? It’s the external world. I mean, you know, you can, it’s kind of like, you know, you can tell all the stories you want about yourself, but it doesn’t really matter.
Jay Ferracane 19:57
Marc Gutman 19:58
That’s what everyone thinks, you know, about yourself.
Jay Ferracane 20:01
Yeah, no. And that’s it’s totally Yeah. Because I, yeah, you know, for along the line of storytellers is a word that I never got, and it’s my brushes with the advertising world is, 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 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 in too.
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, 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 the TV and record stuff into it, I still, to this day, don’t know where this soundbite came, but it’s this very posture-y 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. And he 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 wedged them under a new wave. And he said, it’s because you don’t want to get kicked out with a 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 may be reassign it, and it’s it’s a funny, it’s a funny thing. And 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 22:40
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 23:13
Marc Gutman 23:14
Oh, Go on Go on. But you have this idea that like everyone’s a storyteller is just crazy to me. And, and I do 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 you know, there’s a lot of 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 23:40
Yeah, and that’s fine, though. That is great
Marc Gutman 23:42
And you should—Yeah, and you know and 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 be in 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 the—we are visionary storytellers looking to change the world you know one brand at a time.
Jay Ferracane 24:24
Well and i think that’s that’s why, let’s just call it that well “the creatives” to use a big loose term 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 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 roller coaster guys sense. It 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 it’s more of a mathematician than anything because you got to figure out a lot of gravity shit, I bet. And they’re right. You know, it’s like gravity and like, what if there’s a fat guy in a little guy in the in the car together? What’s that gonna do to the story? Like,
Marc Gutman 25:19
How hard is it to say I’m a kick ass roller coasters? Like, like, like, like, everyone understands that.
Jay Ferracane 25:25
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’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
less of a mantle of bullshit.
And he has that. That [inaudible] and like, [inaudible]. Like there was a [inaudible] in there for a second.
Marc Gutman 26:21
Angry. Yeah, you know?
Jay Ferracane 26:23
Marc Gutman 26:23
I love it. Well, Jay, this was awesome. I just 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. Like kind of blew my mind and was just really cool to chat about it.
Jay Ferracane 26:37
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 you’re welcome. And I’m glad to continue to distract you on a daily basis.
Marc Gutman 26:48
Thank you. I’m looking forward to my next distraction.
And that is Jay Ferracane. And that was us talking about storytelling, all based on the Stefan Sagmeister video. I love that he kind of goes on that rant about someone who designs roller coasters as a storyteller, but I think you’ll agree it’s become really, really confusing. I hope you like this little bonus episode. And if you want more of this type of content, drop us a line at wildstorm.com and let us know that you like these type of episodes just as much as of our traditional interview.
Well, that’s the show for today. Let me know if you have any questions. I’m Marc Gutman, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS. See you’ll never miss an episode. I like big stories and I cannot lie, you other storytellers can’t deny.