Establishing a Culture of Storytelling

As an Executive Portfolio Director at IDEO Chicago, Neil Stevenson is passionate about advancing IDEO’s design thinking methodologies. Neil studied the human brain and behavior at Oxford University where he received a master's degree in Psychology and Social Anthropology. He was a magazine editor for Mixmag and The Face in London before joining the IDEO team in 2005.

Neil is currently exploring new creative methods and connecting with thought leaders in creativity to instigate the next phase of design thinking. He frequently speaks on storytelling, human-centered design, and forecasting future trends, and is fascinated by the slow evolution of the human brain in relation to our expanding tech environment.

Neil shared with us the journey of establishing storytelling as part of IDEO’s culture and why IDEO now embraces storytelling as an essential element of design thinking.


Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re doing at this point in your career.

I’ve been at IDEO for 10 years. Before IDEO, I was a magazine journalist, covering music and fashion and things like that. I was briefly an IDEO client, and I loved the free post-it notes so much I jumped over the divide and became an employee. I’m now working on storytelling at IDEO. I’m looking at new ways to tell stories, new ways to talk to people about the principles of design thinking and how to bring creativity into their world in various ways.

How does storytelling fit in with IDEO?

Storytelling wasn’t always a huge product for IDEO. People like David and Tom Kelley have always had a natural ability to tell great stories, but there wasn’t much conscious dialogue around storytelling. As we started designing things that were more abstract and systemic, or harder to demonstrate, we gradually realized that we needed to find compelling ways to talk about these things. So, we’ve had this rise of interest around storytelling. 

Tell us a story about a creative team you were a part of where storytelling played an integral role.


IDEO Stories Poster

A team of us started a program called IDEO Stories, and we were looking at how to essentially coach storytelling at IDEO. There were various people trying to codify things and put them into decks, but it didn’t seem to be getting traction. We wanted to do something experiential, to give people the experience of developing and presenting a story in hopes they would become advocates of storytelling. We started doing events in Chicago, and then Boston, New York, the Bay Area, and Shanghai.

We initially got people to tell stories from their own lives. We wanted to take people away from the professional mode of storytelling. We had this concern that people in IDEO projects felt the work was so important they had to tell the stories a formal way. We deliberately got people telling stories about their lives, but coached them through a structured process on how to tell those stories. The idea was there would be a transference effect going back to their working life; they’d have this experience of how to develop a compelling story.

“People now recognize storytelling as a design discipline in its own right.”

It was a rewarding process because we had these events where people surprised themselves with how good a story they could tell, and we had this unforeseen effect that IDEO people telling their life stories brought everyone together in a new way. It was like, I’ve been working with you this whole time and I never knew that about you. It worked as a cultural bonding and was really gratifying.

We were trying to do education in disguise; it was kind of sneaky. What seemed really fun and human, actually had an education component. The surprise was the effect of the stories, it was like an exercise in people bringing their whole self to work, and everyone responded in a terrifically positive way.

How and why is storytelling a part of the design process?

I’ll give you an example. There’s a team in IDEO Chicago that’s been working with an automobile manufacturer. When the team was initially dealing with the company, the organization was very siloed. We’d deal with one particular group, and it was hard to get ideas through the entire organization. For the last project, the client and the IDEO team created a fully immersive story-based experience. They prototyped a truck, had projections on the walls, actors reading a script, and audio effects generating a sense of weather.

This experience brought together a disparate client group of designers, engineers, and marketers and the previously siloed departments started communicating in a new way. By telling this immersive story, the team found a way to elevate the work above what was initially perceived as affecting only certain groups within the company. People would say, that’s a piece of engineering and applies to my department, or, that’s a piece of marketing and applies to their department. The story managed to raise everybody up to have a conversation about the overall experience.


The focus was on designing for people and storytelling highlighted their needs?

Exactly. What it did was help elevate the project deliverable into something everyone could relate to on a human level. Stories can help activate a sense of purpose by really connecting you to the person you’re creating the product for.

Storytelling is fundamentally a subtractive medium. A good story is about reducing down to the essence. We can use the analogy of the stars. If you look at a sky full of stars, you can’t make sense of it. If you take a few stars, link them together and make a constellation, now you’ve got a cool picture of a bear and that’s memorable. It’s the same with storytelling, you need to reduce it down to something essential that people can engage with.


At IDEO we have this “yes and” culture, where everybody’s encouraged to come up with loads of ideas and insights. It’s a culture of abundance, and that’s a beautiful thing, but the subtraction necessary in storytelling is the opposite mindset. There was a cultural difficulty in getting storytelling to take root, because it’s hard to get people to edit. The culture of IDEO is, everybody’s stuff is wonderful and we don’t want to edit. This is why storytelling has taken time to develop as part of the company’s culture.

Why creativity now more than ever?

I’m personally interested by gaps, and there’s a huge gap around creativity. Everybody’s talking about it and saying they want it, and yet it seems to be poorly understood. When people try to define it they really struggle; it actually turns out to be a whole bundle of different processes under one banner. It’s one of those things where there’s a gap between the desire for creativity and the understanding of it, which is an interesting opportunity.

Within society and organizations there’s this rising tide of people saying, I need to be creative because the robots and AIs are coming and all the boring jobs will be done by computers. It’s like the flood is coming and the high ground is going to be creative work, because it’s harder to automate. Creativity is a way we can add value and do well as people, while staying relevant and not being replaced by a computer.

“A good story is about reducing down to the essence.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you do to design a world where anyone could build creative confidence to solve real world challenge?

There’s something really interesting happening in education. We tell ourselves a myth about beating creativity out of kids—that kids are really creative and by the time we become adults, we stop being creative. I don’t think we beat it out of kids. I think it’s more subtle, that kids abandon creativity because it doesn’t give the quick reward other behaviors do. In the same way they abandon carrots because Cheetos are more fun, or they abandon wooden toys because Call of Duty is more fun. If you look at how the brain works, we’re wired for rewards. Extrinsic rewards are attractive to kids, and creativity falls by the wayside because it’s actually an intrinsic reward.

It would be great if we could design the experience differently, to encourage and support creativity. Being creative is kind of a deviant act; standing out from the norm, by definition, is being creative. I’d love to introduce a reward mechanism to make people feel more supported to do creative things, especially in those vulnerable teenage years.

Any last thoughts on storytelling?

One way we’ve talked about storytelling at IDEO Chicago is to reframe it as a form of design—design for influence. You’re trying to create something that influences others in a positive way so they go and share it—storytelling as a viral influencing tool.

Often when people do a presentation they simply state everything they did, but when you reframe it as a story it becomes a tool that other people can use to create impact as well. When you say the word storytelling, it sounds fluffy or romantic, but it’s a human sense—a way to achieve positive influence around an idea.


Learn how to create a great brief, better understand your audience, prototype your story, and hone your narrative—learn the craft of storytelling. Check out our Storytelling for Influence online course.

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