Storytelling has long been an essential component of design work. This oft-used tool is just as likely to incite a warm and fuzzy feeling in consumers who pick up your packaging design as it is to turn a simple illustration into a clever conversation piece. In fact, many great designs begin as stories just waiting to be told.
But it is one thing for a designer to construct a narrative for the audience; it is quite another to create something that enables (and encourages) the audience to add to the narrative. From a web project that aggregates data to report on human emotions to a clever look at women in the porn industry, Jonathan Harris is producing some mind-blowing sagas. Here’s the tale of how he approaches digital storytelling, overcomes obstacles and foresees the future of interactive design.
(Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from a larger article, Inside Story. The full-length version can be found in Print magazine’s Storytelling Issue from October 2013.)
Jonathan Harris is the man behind powerful works such as “Cowbird,” “a small community of storytellers interested in telling deeper, longer-lasting, more nourishing stories than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the web,” and “We Feel Fine,” the aforementioned digital feelings calculator that was a collaborative effort with Sep Kamvar. Harris has a knack for creating connections between users around the world. Princeton educated in the disciplines of computer science and photography, Harris’ odd medley of specialties helps him engage audiences through visual and interactive art and shared experiences.
“Computer science taught me how to break down problems systematically into smaller, more manageable chunks,” he says. “Photography taught me how to look at things and how to notice things most people don’t see. My photography teacher at Princeton was Emmet Gowin, and he taught me to see the beauty in everyday life, right at home, without the need for exotic travel or melodrama.” Harris, who got into art through comic books, later experimented with oil painting and composing travel journals before dabbling with digital media. “It seemed like the most interesting frontier,” he says.
And Harris uses the interactive frontier to share stories among strangers as well as to share his own personal stories with audiences across the globe. For example, at the outset of his 30th birthday, the designer embarked on a personal project called “Today.” A series of daily photographs and accompanying short stories posted online, “Today” continued for 440 consecutive days and gave viewers a glimpse of Harris’ life story, from witnessing a strange encounter on the subway one Halloween to a car trip to deliver a book of poems to an octogenarian sheep farmer with the soul of a poet.
“My favorite project is probably ‘Today’ because it’s the most personal thing I’ve made,” he says. “A lot of people do 365 projects—the idea is not new—but it’s one of those ideas that’s all about execution, and I put a lot of myself into each day’s entry. Some nights I would spend four-plus hours writing the story, and I tried to make sure that each entry would give something
Harris also cites a David Foster Wallace essay that differentiates art from advertising as an influence in how he saw the project. While ads require something from the audience, art is simply a gift. “My ‘Today’ project was definitely a gift, and it was a tremendous instrument of personal growth,” Harris says. “In the end, it started to take over my life—I started to feel like a spectator to my own life—so I stopped it abruptly. When I look back on the 440 photographs now, they seem really beautiful to me.”
Similar in form, Harris’ “Cowbird” project looks to audiences to contribute their own photos and stories. Some stories are extensive and some are no more than a sentence or two long, but each has a photo and a label, such as “diplomacy” or “need,” a date and a short clarification like “a drive with a diplomat” or “what do you need?” The photos range from the professional to the Instagram-filtered, the camera-phone selfie to the worn, black-and-white shot from more than a few years ago. Stories of heartache, suffering, joy and perseverance fill the site in an addictive format that begs you to read them all, even though some leave you guessing at the conclusion. “I wanted to create a space for a slower, deeper, contemplative kind of self-expression,” Harris says. “I wanted to create a space for the kind of content that would still resonate 50 years from now. It’s designed with a lot of sensitivity and care. At the same time, it violates just about every principle of viral content strategy, which means that its growth has been slow. By web standards, ‘Cowbird’ has a small community of 30,000 authors who use it and love it, but it hasn’t blown up into something truly mainstream like Tumblr or Twitter.”
In his most recent undertaking, “I Love Your Work,” however, Harris sought to engage audiences in a new way—by setting up a pay-to-watch model. This was his first experiment creating “financially sustainable digital art.” In this case, the economic model served as a means of funding his passion projects while still donating 10% to the Sex Workers Project, a charity that offers social and legal services to those who engage in sex work. If successful, Harris sees this model as a way of funding future projects from all creatives who use the digital medium to produce and share art.
“I Love Your Work” turns the camera on nine women (Jincey Lumpkin, Dylan Ryan, Ela Darling, Ryan Keely, Jett Bleu, Dolores Haze, Luna Londyn, Nic Switch and Joy Sauvage) who labor in the lesbian porn industry. Through 2,202 10-second movie clips, encompassing approximately six hours of film, the women’s lives become a narrative exploring “the realities of those who produce fantasies.” In this case, the fantasy was “Therapy,” a 10-part series from Juicy Pink Box Productions about a woman who explores her sexual fantasies and experiences by having a conversation with seven different women, who all play parts of the main character. “Therapy” predominantly showcases self-pleasure scenes.
Featured in “The New York Times,” “The Huffington Post” and more, “I Love Your Work” has gained some remarkable praise. Greg Stefano, video editorial director of online publication “Cool Hunting,” touts the project’s storytelling aspects, saying, “The resulting patchwork videos create nine different stories that are, at times, very mundane but also completely and utterly addictive.” “Slate’s” Amanda Hess commented on the overall experience: “The interactivity of the project reflects how we consume porn on the internet—jumping from clip to clip, catching glimpses of video in between mundane e-mail replies and, sometimes, visits to performers’ own blogs.”
And aside from the content and digital platform, there are other interesting concepts at work. For example, Harris shot the 10-second clips during 10 consecutive days (Lumpkin was filmed twice) at five-minute intervals for 24 hours, taking in whatever was happening at the time. Each $10 ticket affords a viewer access to the interactive documentary for 24 hours, but there is a catch: Only 10 viewers are permitted to sign up and reserve a time on a particular day. Assuming the tickets sell quickly, the project delays the ticketholder’s instant gratification, something that porn is poised to provide readily. The 10-second stories are also modeled after the 10-second visual teasers the industry uses to entice people to buy the entire pornographic film. An “I Love Your Work” guest page continues the interactivity of the stories beyond the videos by listing the names of those who watched the documentary, building a community of people who have participated in a singular experience.
While quite different, these three projects share an underlying theme: They tell stories. But that’s not necessarily how Harris sees it. “What are stories? Everything is a story. Nothing is a story. It depends on your perspective,” he says. “‘Storytelling’ has become such a cliché in the past few years as to be nearly meaningless—like ‘sustainability’ or ‘innovation.’ Every ad campaign is now a ‘storytelling’ endeavor, and every kind of communication seems to be called ‘storytelling.’ I actually find that word pretty boring now. I just make stuff that feels interesting to me. Call it whatever you want.”
Semantics aside, Harris’ preferred online medium can be a tough one through which to share experiences. As with many forms of design work, there will always be challenges when it comes to execution, but Harris has encountered a different hiccup when attempting to construct an interactive narrative: “Mainly holding people’s attention [presents a problem], although that’s a challenge in any medium,” he says. “Human attention might be the only truly finite resource, but people don’t realize how valuable it is. People are always ‘killing time’ and allowing their time to be consumed by products and companies that are designed to monopolize and monetize it.”
There are other challenges as well. Despite advancements in the digital age, some critics tend to be leery of interactive designs where meaning can get lost in translation. Others dismiss online forums, arguing that the internet and social media could potentially lead to the demise of true, personal connections. In a controversial Flash on the Beach lecture in 2008, Harris himself argued that interactive design often goes too far and that “there have been no masterpieces” in the digital realm.
Today, Harris dismisses these objections. “Of course it is possible to tell stories online. No medium has a monopoly on stories,” he says. “People find all sorts of ways to transmit meaning. The ways in which humans connect are always evolving. When a new technology arrives, we immediately find ways to use it to connect to each other. That’s what humans do. We’re empathetic animals.”
Of his own comments, Harris has taken on a different perspective. While he still isn’t sure that a digital masterpiece has been produced (his own work included), his priorities have definitely changed. “That was something I said when I was young and brash and critical,” Harris says. “I try to be less critical now. There’s something good in everything, even if it’s simply the process of doing it. I don’t want to be a critic. I prefer to be a creator. I’ll let the critics decide the masterpiece question. I’m just focused on making my work and living a good, simple, creative life. And being kind. That’s more important to me now.”