Is A Good Story More Important Than Design?

Technology and coffee on a wooden table.

Today, design is more important than ever. We’ve heard it from advertising giants, industry blogs, and creative directors. From client presentations to ad campaigns, we’ve been led to believe that superior design is integral to creating superior products made by superior brands.

Apple has long been considered the form-meets-function poster child. With its sleek exteriors and visually intuitive interfaces, Apple is one of the biggest contributors in the trend towards design minimalism – a trend which has gained traction in not only product design, but also in branding, the rise of minimalist print ads, and even the way we furnish our homes. Clean, simple, beautiful is the design aesthetic mantra du jour.

But what happens when we spend more time thinking about how something looks, rather than how it speaks to us and how it makes us feel? In Mikael Cho’s article, provocatively titled “Why you don’t need to design like Apple”, Cho challenges the assumption that beauty equals impact. A few interesting takeaways:

“Our intense focus on visual design can blind us from focusing on the most important part of the message: The story.”

Cho writes of companies he’s seen spend thousands of dollars perfecting a website, an email, or an ad’s visual design, only to leave the last few hours to write the words that will make up the design. But by prioritizing visuals over substance, brands and businesses run the risk of forgetting that the content is what matters most. Just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Never underestimate the power of a good (toy) story.

What can Pixar teach us about the importance of a story? Cho points to Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film released by Pixar (then owned by Apple) in 1995. Though the movie went on to receive universal critical acclaim, Pixar had a rough start. Before Toy Story was released Star Wars director George Lucas sold his share of Pixar for $5 million, and the production company nearly went bankrupt.

What went wrong? According to Cho, “the film industry thought a mainstream audience wouldn’t care enough to see an animated feature film.” Oh how wrong the industry was. It was the story of Toy Story, rather than its visual effects, that resonated with audiences of all ages – and turned it into one of the most beloved and lucrative animated film franchises of all time.

“Telling a good story, whether that’s through email, film, or any medium, creates a connection,” writes Cho. “And it’s this connection that leads to attention, which leads to trust, which leads to sales.”

You don’t need beauty to achieve impact. You need authenticity.

In the digital age, we are constantly bombarded with information. With the sheer quantity of texts, notifications, emails and ads we see every day, it isn’t physically possible for us to absorb it all. Our brains have become so overwhelmed with information that they have actually changed. Cho sites a recent Microsoft study that found that the average human attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds between 2000 and 2015; it is now lower than the attention span of a goldfish (at 9 seconds).

As a result, we have become accustomed to filtering. We resist and reject what is not relevant, not pressing, or seems like it came from a machine rather than a person. But when a message comes from someone we trust, we pay attention to it. That’s why authenticity is paramount, especially today; it is approachable, relatable, creates empathy, and enables us to build genuine connections.

The substance of a story is more important than how it looks.

There isn’t anything wrong with beautiful design – but beauty alone isn’t enough. If you have to choose, pick substance over style. Choose authenticity over beauty. Because the substance of a story is more important than how it looks. And ultimately, it is the story, rather than the design, that will resonate.


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