Stefan Sagmeister is a graphic designer, he also won a couple of Grammy awards for album covers and box designs. He used to work with the Rolling Stones, Pat Metheny or Aerosmith. In April 2014, during the FITC conference in Toronto, he stated his opinion regarding calling everything storytelling.
“Recently I read an interview with somebody who designed roller coasters and he referred to himself as a storyteller. No, fuckhead, you’re not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer and that’s fantastic, and more power to you but why would you want to be a storyteller if you design roller coasters? Or if you are a storyteller, then the story you are telling is bullshit! It is this little, itsy-bitsy little thing, yes you go through space and yes, you see other spaces, that’s your story? That’s a fucking bullshit story, that’s boring!
People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels or make feature films don’t see themselves as storytellers. It’s all the people who are not storytellers who kind of for strange reasons because it’s in the air suddenly now wanna be storytellers.”
The video with Sagmeister’s emotional speech entitled You are not a storyteller makes rounds its on the internet. He’s definitely onto something — people actually want to be called storytellers. Question is, are they wrong? We have been telling stories since the dawn of time and the fact that we call ourselves differently does not matter. Do you know how old songs are? You probably can’t imagine- neither can I. But the English word lyrics as in song lyrics did not exist before… the 19th century. Does that mean there were no lyrics in English songs before then? The name graphic designer, describing Segmeister’s profession had been used for the first time in 1956, only six years before he was born!
Stories don’t have to be shaped using words or images — Sagmeister’s view is very narrow. If the point of a story is, as Aristotle would say, katharsis, then everything that makes us feel shaken and cleansed (that’s what the Greeks meant by katharsis) is a story. The songs (with lyrics and music) of The Rolling Stones for whom Sagmeister worked, are stories. So why not a roller coaster?
In 1999 Harvard Business Review published a book, The Experience Economy in which the authors show that customers are willing to pay for katharsis, not only in the movies or theater, but in many other business branches as well. One of the examples they give is a restaurant where you eat in complete darkness. You do not go there just to eat but to experience the food. The value of such dinner is not measured in calories but in emotions. It’s even more valuable when we have a better story to tell to our neighbors. So it’s back to social currency, the indispensable element of every story.
Considering all this, a roller coaster is a story. Its value is measured in emotions, coherent narration that I can tell to others, in the possibility to define myself through the experience. Even if not every roller coaster designer wants to call this process storytelling.