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The power of narrative

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A significant part of our practice as architects is to convey abstract, mostly visual design concepts in ways that make them accessible to a wide range of people, most of whom are not fluent in architectural drawing conventions. We are so focused on visual representation that we are often shocked when the audience does not understand the basic experiential qualities of the spaces we are trying to convey.

How can we help clients and future users understand what it will be like to interact within a building that only exists as drawings and ideas?

It means reexamining the concept of narrative, not as the well-worn, if esoteric, description of a construction sequence, but as storytelling. When we design a space, we imagine the experiences its users will have within, but we struggle to describe these complex interactions with our typical tools – plans, sections, renderings, and diagrams. On the other hand, if we tell compelling narrative stories, in which the spaces that we design have a real impact on the characters who interact there, we can easily draw our audiences into the design.

Narrative stories are useful at a variety of stages in the design process and for a wide range of projects. When audiences begin to imagine a character walking through a space, they start to think of the project experientially. Rather than focusing on surface graphics, they begin to understand the project through the eyes of a future user. For healthcare projects, this means that nurses may better understand the architect’s vision of the patient experience; for education projects, librarians may imagine the possibilities for service in an open commons.

While the process of creating narrative stories does not come easily to visually oriented architects, it gets easier with practice.  By learning to use storytelling to translate the abstract concept of design to a tangible experience, we can communicate the value and impact of our work in language the rest of the world can understand.

- Tad Jusczyk

Tad Jusczyk is an architect at Shepley Bulfinch and was the firm’s 2011 Howe Travelling Fellow.

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