Storytelling on the Web

Originally written for and published by Third & Grove on July 1, 2016.

The mouthful of a name, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv (C&G&H for short), may not have found its way on to your palette, ever, but the brands they've been illustrating since 1958 undoubtedly have. In fact, I am willing to bet the shirt I'm wearing (it's a nice one) that you have quite an intimate relationship with at least one of the logos they've produced.

Doubt it? Well, how about NBC's peacock, PBS's heads, Showtime's camera lens, National Geographic's viewfinder, Library of Congress' book, Smithsonian's sun, Pan Am's (God rest its soul) globe, or HarperCollins' fire and water? The vast majority of the identities produced for these entities have been in use, mostly untouched, for over five decades. Moreover, pull a feather from the NBC peacock, gouge out the eyes of the PBS guy, or turn the fire to smoke for HarperCollins, and the brand still stands, alive and full of life as if untouched.

This ability to endure the test of time, a saturated competitive atmosphere, and flexible use is rooted in C&G&H's understanding of mankind's incredible ability to infer.

To infer is to solve a problem with our own internal resources. It's the closest we'll be getting to telepathy anytime soon. Inference allows us to understand a concept more so than if it were bottled, packaged, and delivered to us directly. And, better yet, originating a concept within your audience creates a bond that spoon-feeding will never compare to.

This isn't just some facet of esoteric design theory, however. The idea of inference in storytelling is in everything we consume, especially film. We all know the varying story structures of cinema: the normative three-act structure, Pixar's 22 rules, even the gut-wrenching and mind-boggling European approach of giving you a random slice of life, never to provide an obvious "ending" (I'm looking at you Michael Haneke ಠ_ಠ).

Each style, and surely there are more, has its own resulting weight of emotion beyond the plot, cast, and climax. However, with all the variations of storytelling in film, there still can only be one that's rendered beginning and end. Anakin's rage will always overpower him, the tapestries will always be sewn into God-awful outfits for the von Trapps, and Simba will always be coronated. This concept of the singular climax is in staunch opposition to a website's user interaction. As users on a site, we can write our own stories, and many variations thereof. You may strive for, even go so far as to design, a narrow journey for your users, but only a percentage will go down that road with you.

For us, as digital innovators, the inferred story is grounded deep within the heart of surfing the web. Every site and every individual’s experience of that site is a story. We, as writers/designers/developers, yearn to provide the best stories for the widest gamut of possible individuals that are likely to access said story.

This still leaves the question of how to write a good story that can endure many variations of itself that won't lead your user on a stray path to some undeveloped denouement, or worse, a dead drop. Just as a great movie is cast by a great team (writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, et al), all driven with the same mission of telling a story without bullet-pointing the plot or relationship dynamics, so too is a website produced (content strategists, producers, designers, developers, et al) where a user isn't force-fed pathways, interactions, and functionality.

As with logos that can live on with parts of themselves skewed or hidden, when your site is able to employ your users' ability to infer what is not right before them – with the imagery and copywriting to bolster it – they will be encouraged to explore more. To scroll down without being prompted, to swipe through carousels, and to create their own story, that may or may not lead to an immediate contact submission or purchase, but nonetheless builds on an experience worth returning for. And a returning visitor is more likely to click that "Add to Cart" button than one would on the first go.