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The importance of storytelling

Last night I was out for drinks with a friend of mine who runs an architecture firm in the city called Reflect Architecture. We started talking about the importance of marketing and storytelling in city building and then got onto the topic of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG.

At only 39, Bjarke Ingels has become a celebrity architect at a relatively young age. He’s working on projects all over the world from Vancouver to New York to Shenzhen. And he describes his work as a combination of “shrewd analysis, playful experimentation, social responsibility and humour.” But what has always interested me about BIG is their use of dead, simple, diagrams (see above for an example).

A diagram is just a graphic way of communicating information. And lots of architects use them as a design tool. But what BIG does is use them to create a narrative around each and every project. If you look at their website you’ll see that every project is presented using a series of diagrams that outline the process used to arrive at the final design. You’ll never just see the final product. You always see the steps involved. Click here for an example from Vancouver.

What’s powerful about this approach is that it demonstrates that there’s a logic behind every design outcome (even if sometimes it might be contrived or done after the fact). It’s not form for the sake of form; it’s form as a result of the uses in the building, the urban context, and so on. 

But at the same time, I think it taps into a deeper psychological phenomenon: people love stories. In fact, research shows that when we’re told stories, our brains actually become more active. We pay closer attention.

I mean, just think about how much people enjoy hearing about rags-to-riches stories. Nobody likes to talk about some rich person who was born rich. That’s not an exciting or interesting story. And it changes how we perceive that person. We want to hear about that guy or girl who came over from a war torn country and built an empire from nothing. Now that’s a good story.

What I’m getting at is that I think a big part of Bjarke’s success has come from his ability to masterfully storytell and market both himself and his projects. Architecture schools don’t usually teach you how to market and sell; they teach you how to design. But the reality is that you need to sell. And storytelling is a great way to do that.

If you liked this post, I recommend you check out this TED talk by Bjarke Ingels and this short interview with marketer Gary Vaynerchuk where he talks about how he used storytelling to sell wine.

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