Storytelling has evolved beyond the spoken and written word over the last several decades. The world has begun to see story as a key aspect of multiple disciplines; something that can be applied to everything from branding to education. It’s my belief that story sits at the center of everything.
In my role as the Director of Environmental Design at PlainJoe Studios, I get to spend a lot of my time involved in a very unique form of storytelling. Environmental Design is a discipline that focuses on the total spatial experience a visitor has in a physical environment. From the moment someone steps into a space, to their very last interaction, a story is being told. If intentionality isn’t poured into the creation of a facility, then a huge opportunity is being missed.
Whenever our team begins a new project, be it a children’s area, high end attraction, restaurant or an office space, the first thing we do is sit down with the project’s decision makers, the owners of the organization’s DNA, and nail down the Big Idea, the space’s Story. (Yes, that’s Story with a capital “S”.) This, above all else, is the key to an impactful project and has to happen first; before a single concept sketch is doodled, color palette examined or technology considered.
“But why?” we’re so frequently asked. “Does a place really need a story?” The answer is a resounding yes.
Story has always been the basis of human communication. When your significant other tells you that they had a terrible day, you expect them to give you a narrative account of what happened. It’s how we come to understand their current emotional state. It’s the Story that connects us and allows us to empathize with what they’ve experienced. The vast majority of our leisure time is spent centered around Story. We read, go to movies, sit down to watch our favorite television program or even gather with friends to share the Stories of our lives while we enjoy a meal together. Children are even taught life lessons through fables; the Story allows them to internalize the message being delivered.
Story offers people a deeper understanding of their lives and each other and ultimately ties them together. At the center of every community, no matter how big or small, is a shared story.
There’s a reason Disneyland has had such a powerful effect on countless generations. On one level the rides and attractions are all Story based. You’re invited into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye to search for Indiana Jones; to, in essence, become a part of a Story that you’ve likely thrilled to in the past. You’re given the chance to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan or face the Empire with the Rebel Alliance. However, beyond the Stories we all know and love, you’re invited to create Stories of your own; lasting memories and shared experiences for you and your loved ones to share for years to come. There’s a reason the first area in Disneyland, Main Street, U.S.A., is modeled after Walt Disney’s childhood home of Marceline, MO. It’s the place where Walt’s imagination grew and took flight, where his Stories began. Upon entering the park guests are being encouraged to dream and write their own Stories within the fictional world Disney has constructed.
On a practical level, a space’s Story serves as a guide against which all design decisions need to be measured. This can be very literal; in a futuristic space themed children’s area the Story tells us that a ‘57 Chevy doesn’t work as a thematic element. (Unless the ‘57 Chevy is given a facelift to become a 2057 hover Chevy.) The principle stays true even if the Story isn’t quite so thematically specific. A coffee shop’s Story may be that it’s a place of calm and refuge for the busy community around it, a place to gather, recover, reconnect and rest. This informs every design decision for the space. Busy fabric patterns aren’t the right choice for the booth seats and cacophonous colors should probably be saved for a future project. There’s literally not a single design decision that won’t benefit from Story.
People ask me what being Director of Environmental Design means…at the end of the day I’m a storyteller. I work with the team to set the Story for our projects then send up a flare when I see something that may not fit within the narrative we’ve defined. It’s fun, it’s challenging and, at the end of the day, it forces me to look at the idea of story in a new and unique way.
Here's a few examples of projects I've been lucky enough to work on...