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Objects with personal value, like these old drafting tools, are great places to anchor a brand.

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Branding Through Storytelling in Commercial Design

Storytelling is an integral part of humanity: our individual and communal lives are built on stories. When it comes to a brand, a well-told, authentic story reflected in a physical space is incredibly impactful. But, what does that mean and where do you start in the design process?

August 22, 2019

Using stories to communicate the feeling of your brand.

There is nothing we love more than a well-told story. We line up for them in bookstores and at movie theatres, we binge them on Netflix. At the end of the day, we even tell ourselves stories while we sleep — in dreams. Our minds themselves are nothing more than story processors: we’re introduced to the world with stories when we’re young, they’re how we learn to understand the world, how we dream and think about the future. Stories are one of the most beautiful, organic and effective ways to communicate ideas.

Branding is an art form, one of the subtlest stories one can tell. One of the most impactful storytelling tools we have is the design of a branded space. Stories are crucial in connecting a brand with customers. Whether it’s a coffee shop, restaurant, or retail shop, branded spaces need to connect with guests and visitors.

Some commercial spaces are like blockbuster movies — like the REI flagship store in South Lake Union. REI has an amazing, authentic brand, with a well-told story harkening back generations. In the 1930s, 23 climbers pooled their resources to purchase and share climbing gear, and that cooperative spirit is everywhere you look in the shop. When I walk into that space, I feel as if I’m invited to “choose my own adventure.”

Native American wood relief carving.
Wood Relief Carving at REI

A Native American relief sculpture in REI headquarters references the company's Pacific Northwest roots.

There’s a climbing wall, tents, Native American relief carvings, even an airstream coffee shop. I can imagine myself kayaking rapids, scaling a mountain, trailblazing new paths. Most importantly, I feel as if REI wants to help me do those things, wants me to be the newest “friend” pooling resources for affordable adventures. REI, however, might have a bit more budget than the average small business owner, and most branded stories are much closer to an independent film: a passion project.

Small business stories are often character pieces, and personal one-on-one connections are the strongest bonds you can forge with your guests and customers. One way to go about creating an authentic narrative is to think about a personal item you might have a strong emotional connection with — a personal item, a totem from childhood perhaps that you keep with you that inspires you. What are its qualities? How does it feel in your hand? where did it come from? This could be the catalyst for your interior aesthetic and the foundation for telling your authentic story.

For instance, my grandfather was an engineer, and I always have his vintage stainless steel drafting set at home. It’s in this leather box with a lush, green felt interior. If I were opening a new design office, I could imagine an entire aesthetic just from this item alone, and begin to tell the story of how I became a designer.

One of the most exciting questions you can ask yourself as you embark on telling your story is, “How can I surprise my customers, how can I tell them a story that’s unexpected?”

Just typing out your personal story and putting it on the wall is a little too on the nose, and logos and typefaces, if overused, might feel more like a sales pitch than a story. It’s important to go on a visual journey, to think abstractly. Hunt for images that evoke the feeling you want your guests to have. This can be a collection of images that weaves together to form the overall feel or aesthetic of your brand. Abstract images are best, since they can be applied to graphics and copy just as easily to interior design. This is a great way to break yourself of the assumptions you might make about who you are what your customers might expect.

At Laughing Buddha Tattoo on Capitol Hill, the design evolved from a collection of abstract images. Customers often compare the space to so many other types of spaces: a spa, a juice bar, a health club, even a hotel lounge. The best part is, so many people enter the space, and engage someone working inside to discover more about the space, what happens inside and how the aesthetic came about.

No matter what approach you choose to tell the story of your brand, digging deep down and finding the core of what your brand truly means for you will make all the difference. An authentic story, told well, will create a bond with your customers that will last. They’ll embark on the journey with you, and keep coming back for the next chapter.

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