The Story is the Thing: A Talk with Andy Davidhazy
What is the role of storytelling in current design practice? The term, over the past couple years, has become a powerful buzzword. It’s been latched onto, and tossed around so much (in and outside the design profession) that there have been those who have begun to question its validity and application. While it’s true not everyone should don the mantle of “storyteller”, within the creative fields storytelling remains a powerful tool that fosters and supports meaningful experiences. But what does it mean to become a storyteller? What are their qualities, and how can we leverage human experiences (our own and others’) in a way that creates meaning for people interacting with design?
Andy Davidhazy embodies much of what we envision a design storyteller to be. He’s worked with countless brands during his career, helping them craft meaningful experiences deeply rooted in story. His personal life reads more like the pages of an adventure book than that of a typical designer. Over the past few years he’s hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, covered a revolution in Egypt and traveled thousands of miles cross country. Each adventure he’s undertaken adds to his process, allowing him to draw from a deep well of experience (and empathy) when solving design problems.
Andy was kind enough to take some time out between adventures to talk with us a bit about his work and the role of storytelling in design.
I don’t approach design as a means to making things pretty to look at, but rather to solve a problem of some kind—to satisfy a functional or emotional need.
The idea of storytelling is popular right now. Why do you think the role of the “storyteller” has gained so much importance in recent years?
I suspect that any increased focus on storytelling may be linked to the advances and ubiquity of technology and social sharing. Sharing experiences, or mere moments as they’re happening, is no longer novel. People will naturally start looking to fill the void that technology and novelty alone can’t deliver. We search for meaning, and stories can provide that—a reason for the technological platform to exist.
Based off your experiences, what does it take to be a good storyteller?
Aside from a beginning, middle and an end, the best storytellers in my view are those that can translate common experiences in an uncommon way, or uncommon experiences in a way that everyone can relate to. I mean, the good ones—be it writers, photographers, comedians, filmmakers—they can make you feel something, to care about the benign or the profound. I don’t really know how they do that, but for the kind of honest, human stories and visual documentaries I like, I would imagine that the talent for storytelling must be grounded in empathy and curiosity.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the time-lapse video I did of my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail was so popular, was because it emphasized the human experience, more so than the trail experience. What does living outdoors for 5 months and walking 2,600 miles do to a man? What does he feel? Don’t get me wrong, the trail and mountain scenery is infinitely more visually appealing than my face, but without a human connection, the landscape would be little more than a pretty picture.
My first impression of your work was that it was deliberate, considered, and personal. How has personal storytelling played a part in that work for you?
I’m glad that this was your impression. All those things are true and fairly constant.
I was a latch-key kid growing up on a college campus surrounded by my father’s cameras, dark rooms and creativity run amok. This was all tremendously influential to me and probably helped to break down a lot of unnecessary boundaries in life and how I defined it. Without the benefit, or burden, of forethought, I’ve probably always tried to live a life worthy of a story to be told, whether that be in a series of photographs, a blog post, presentation, book, or movie.
I’ve had a long career in the commercial arts, as a designer and consultant to some of the biggest brands solving really interesting customer and user experience problems. I don’t approach design as a means to making things pretty to look at, but rather to solve a problem of some kind—to satisfy a functional or emotional need. In business or civic works those problems are more often than not about connection and communication. They’re about story.
There is a definite authenticity present in your work. What role does it play in what you do, and why is authenticity an important trait for designers to develop?
I look for authenticity in others, and I work on it for myself.
My client work is about finding the truth in a brand or product, and finding unique ways to communicate that in a way that real people would care about and find meaningful. This is true whether I’m designing a transit station, a better customer service for a bank, or developing a device that can truly heal people.
Truth is invaluable to navigating a complex world and I find the idiosyncrasies of being human infinitely more interesting. I don’t like to escape reality, I’ve never done drugs, and rarely drink or medicate my pain. Somewhere in there is why I prefer the unvarnished, the candid, unplanned and imperfect. Which is odd to say, because I can work very, very hard at perfecting the imperfect. Perhaps this is a contradiction, but to me they are inseparable. If you care about something, you work hard to preserve it and give it the platform and respect it deserves.
You’ve taken on several large adventures, from hiking The Pacific Crest Trail to covering a revolution in Egypt, how have those experiences expanded your ideas on the creative process?
An unexpected lesson that stemmed from some of these more recent experiences, such as the PCT and Egyptian Revolution, is the realization that I could pursue and create things that were deeply personal and selfishly motivated, but yet connect, entertain and even inspire many others at the same time. This was a rather liberating realization, and it’s given me permission to continue to pursue projects that I feel passionate about in some way. This is enough for me.
People are usually a pretty good judge of what’s authentic and real. I think they sensed that in my PCT time-lapse video. It was not easy for me to share so many images of myself that I wasn’t proud of or made me look bad, but as I was putting in the work to make it and then saw the finished piece, I knew the value of the whole far outweighed any awkwardness involved in sharing myself quite so openly.
What does it mean to “walk slow with an open mind”?
To me, it means to follow your curiosity, consciously and deliberately, where ever it may lead you.
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Andy Davidhazy has served as an executive creative director, brand strategist, designer and writer for 20 years—helping executives and their organizations deliver more meaningful products and customer experiences. In his upcoming WebVisions Chicago lecture, “Authenticity, Technology and the Future of Storytelling“, Andy deconstructs the creative process – from concept to web to interaction to movie – and shares his adventures and perspectives on authenticity and personal storytelling in the age of likes and social shares.