What’s the Story #61

"There’s a story in every design and a design in every story"

Prasad Boradkar and I met almost ten years ago, and we connected right away. Prasad, who is one of this issue’s two consulting editors, is a professor in the school of design at Arizona State University; back then, he was running a program called InnovationSpace, which challenged teams of students to develop products that are sustainable, marketable, and helpful to society. When I asked him how students found their product ideas, Prasad explained, “Well, they create stories.”

He went on to say that designers, architects, and engineers don’t make stuff up out of thin air; they formulate stories or case study scenarios about the people who will need the product they are designing, and how and why and when they will use the product. Story is key to envisioning and shaping design. There’s not only a structure in every design, Prasad said, but there’s a story behind the structure.

Then, I told Prasad about creative nonfiction—writing true stories—and how there’s actually a design inherent in every story. Writers, in a way, look at their essays and articles from a designer’s or architect’s perspective. They first sit at their keyboards or yellow pads, following their research and their notes and their creative intuition, but then they write and revise, and then finally edit. Before toying with sentences and paragraphs, many writers first focus on the design of the piece, the beginning-to-end shape of it all, what we call the narrative arc or frame. The structure of the story.

I have written about the idea of story structure in my books and in this column before. Nonfiction veterans like John McPhee and Gay Talese have also discussed extensively the idea of shape or story structure in writing and reporting. (Talese’s particular eccentricity is to map out the structure of his stories on the cardboard that comes with his laundered shirts.) Almost every piece of creative nonfiction is constructed of a series of little stories or scenes that introduce and develop the main characters and events; through these scenes and stories, the writer can explore the larger subject or reason for writing: why these characters and events are significant, and how they relate to the world.

Prasad and I have become intrigued with the idea that there’s a story in every design and a design in every story, and we have co-lectured to our students over the years about the intersections of design and story. Right now, we are co-editing an issue of Innovation magazine, for which we’re inviting  designers to write narratives about their designs.

Over the past few years, Prasad has taken his ideas about design and story a step further by engaging the emerging field of biomimicry. It’s a good bet that many of you will not recognize the name Janine Benyus, the subject of Adelheid Fischer’s “Writer at Work” column in this issue. (Adelheid is this issue’s other consulting editor.) But Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has become required reading—a bible, in fact—for biologists, climatologists, architects, engineers, sustainability experts, product designers, and anyone concerned with protecting and understanding the environment.

As Benyus explains in her 2009 TED Talk, “Biomimicry in Action” (which has more than a million views), we humans are clever creatures—incredible innovators. But too often, our innovations have made a mess of the natural environment. Benyus argues that we needn’t look too far to find answers to the challenges that confront us; a sustainable world already exists, engineered by animals, plants, and microbes. Modeling our innovations on natural processes might lead to better design, and more importantly, it might help us regain balance with the natural environment.

Janine Benyus’s firm is a partner of the Biomimicry Center at ASU, which has generously funded the $5,000 Biomimicry Center at ASU Outstanding Essay Prize, awarded to Yelizaveta P. Renfro. 

Renfro’s essay, “The View through the Crack,” selected from almost five hundred submissions, brings together biomimicry, design, and story quite skillfully. It’s about how arctic ground squirrels’ unique hibernation mechanisms might lead to a treatment for Alzheimer’s. But it’s also about the making of story—and how science itself (not unlike a work of creative nonfiction) is an assembling of somewhat subjective components into a story.

In many creative nonfiction pieces, there are what we call parallel narratives, two or more stories or narrative arcs that at first might not seem compatible, but which are ingeniously tied together in the end. In Debra Gwartney’s “Into Every Life Some Rain Must Fall,” stories depicting how people and animals are adjusting to the changing climate in Oregon are interwoven with Gwartney’s husband’s experience of being diagnosed with incurable cancer. His diagnosis, like climate change, creates a “new normal.”

The stories in this issue approach the “learning from nature” theme from diverse angles, but fundamentally they share a belief that nature’s design can inspire humanity to do better. Catherine Musemeche, in “The Missing Link to a Missing Limb,” shows how deer antlers have inspired better prostheses for amputees. Wendy Bone’s “Borneo’s Night Lights” focuses on bioluminescent mushrooms and how they might inspire more efficient technologies, while Mary Heather Noble’s “Eulogy for an Owl”—winner of the Editors’ Prize—explores the challenges and contradictions of protecting endangered species . . . and asks what it is we’re really trying to protect.

The stories in this issue, as in all issues of Creative Nonfiction, demonstrate the power and importance of using story to communicate information to a general audience. We sometimes think of storytelling as the specialty of writers. But if there’s a lesson in this issue, it’s that all creative endeavors—everything from biomimicry to product design to scientific research—are themselves a form of storytelling. This issue celebrates our common endeavor of making sense of the world through narrative.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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