Storytelling in entertainment design

An interview with Daryl LeBlanc AIA, LEED AP

How does storytelling relate to entertainment design?
Storytelling is an integral part of entertainment design. Most, if not all entertainment projects have some underlying reason for being that can be expressed through stories. Whether it is creating an experience based around an intellectual property, some type of educational component, or a significant culturally relevant venue, we find that stories are required in order to set the ground rules for the design. It would be very difficult to define and develop the content for these projects without knowing how the story relates to the experience we are trying to convey.

What kind of projects do we employ storytelling on?
We try to use some form of storytelling on all of our projects. The most natural projects for this strategy include attractions and theme parks, museums and learning centers and RD&E [retail, dining and entertainment] venues. However, we have also found this to be an effective strategy in the design of projects within other markets, notably hotels and resorts.

How is the story developed?
It depends on the complexity and scale of the project. In some cases, we have brought in consultants to assist in the research and writing of the stories and in others, we have taken the lead on these efforts. After conducting an appropriate level of research at the beginning of a project, we bring the initial ideas to the surface in a series of open discussions and workshops, prior to any design being done. Concepts, story outlines, experience fragments and similar thoughts are discussed and debated until the right mix comes out. At that time, the actual writing begins. In some cases, this is no more than a list of several statements that comprise a series of goals and outcomes that we want all guests to experience. In other cases, these goals and outcomes are expanded into a series of developed narratives that describe the experience from a guests’ point of view. The goal being to identify and describe the things we want visitors to know, feel and do.

DarylLeBlanc

How do you incorporate storytelling in your design process? How is it expressed?
Depending on the scope and scale of the project, the composition of the project team including the owner, and other related factors, we typically employ a range of storytelling techniques. We start the design process with the definition of the story. This can seem somewhat strange to those who are not
familiar with this process, but it can actually form the basis for a more organized and linear method of designing, especially with large, multidisciplinary teams. When story threads, goals and outcomes are defined prior to putting pen to paper, it is easier to judge the validity of a specific design idea as we
move forward. We are then asking ourselves whether this design concept now supports and enhances the story as opposed to something more subjective, such as ‘Do we like it?’ It is therefore easier to keep a larger team engaged and moving forward in the same direction. It is a matter of constantly asking; How does this idea/detail/material support the story? As part of this process, we
sometimes develop the actual design work through techniques like storyboarding. In this manner, we create a series of vignettes that begin to express how and where the story is being told from the guest perspective. In some cases we are more interested in creating a sequential series of experiences then determining practical solutions, such as where is the front door. We find that
technical issues like that resolve themselves fairly quickly leaving us time to focus on crafting the experience.

How does storytelling translate in the experience of the space?
These techniques translate into the experience of the space. In some cases, this can be a very subtle overlay to what is happening, and in other cases, the story is at the forefront of how guests relate to the space. This range in story line prominence should be discussed early in the process. In either scenario, we feel that the use of stories enhances any design by making all components work together. Whether everyone fully understands the complete extent of the story at the end of their visit is more difficult to control. But they should at least get a sense that the spaces are richly textured, highly compelling and ultimately interesting enough to capture their attention and imagination, ideally
making them want to return.

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A significant rock carving overlooking the Baisha Xi River RDE and Visitor’s Center greets visitors to Hailongtun.

Will this way of approaching design continue to be important or is there something else that will replace it?
This method of designing will continue to be important. It is a way of distinguishing spaces and creating experiences that are more than just about the creation of interesting and unique forms. Spaces designed this way form a deeper connection to the individuals that experience them. Hopefully the memories that are created will resonate longer as a result. In the future, the evolution of story-based design will include the ability for these stories to be even more individualized and even specifically tailored to each guest. This is happening now. Think of components in a museum that cater to different levels of engagement, or elements in a theme park that are meant to captivate different age groups. I believe this individualization will only become more important in the future.

The idea that I can have an experience in a venue that may be completely different from someone else’s, yet both scenarios create the same sense of fulfillment and desire to return is a very powerful notion. I believe this will extend outward past the physical environment. It will start when guests make initial plans to visit these types of spaces, which is usually via the Internet. The guest experience does not start when you arrive at a facility, it starts much earlier when we plan our visit such a space. Similarly, these experiences do not end when we leave. It is the creation of lasting memories that are at the root of these efforts. People remember stories, especially stories that involve them in some manner. Creating this highly personal connection is the reason we use stories as the basis of design today and why this strategy will continue to be an effective design tool tomorrow.

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