Design Thinking and the art of storytelling

Anubhav Gupta
July 6, 2021

Do you like stories? I love stories. You would notice that I typically begin most of my editorials with a story or an anecdote. It is confusing to tell a story about storytelling. I am no literary genius like Calvino so in the spirit of his book and this editorial, I’d request you to participate by connecting the dots and script a story about your story as you navigate the corporate world.

So, stories can be fictional or non fictional and some realists may think of stories as lies even though they may be based on truths – because after all they can be interpreted both from a teller’s as well as a listener’s perspective. In my view, that isn’t really the point as long as the story is authentic to the truth it is trying to convey. To quote one of my favorite graphic novelists from modern times, “Artists (may) use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” - Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Sociologists will tell you that humans are social animals and that storytelling is an essential universal feature of every culture, society, way of life and sustenance for evolution. We are all hard wired for good stories and whether we like it or not narratives often define our own and collective identities. So what can stories do (among other things)?

  • They can make you imagine a world that you thought was not possible
  • They provide points of reference and layers of relatability
  • As a construct of complexity they are easy to remember
  • They have characters, role models, lessons and points of view
  • They are inclusive, provide dignity and build spirit
  • They appeal to our rational, sensory and emotional sides
  • They pass key information across time, people, cultures and geographies
  • They can give you a reason to believe
  • They are a form of celebration and an artifact of culture
  • They help form narratives and identities

If we think about it, the above can easily be extrapolated and translated to almost all domains of corporate life and culture especially one where people are placed at the heart of it. The envisioning, making of..., made in…, made by…, made for…, inspite of… and impact generated are all examples of storytelling premises. Interesting, vivid, authentic, crafted and well-told stories that have consistent values form the identity of your corporation. Custodians of these stories may typically be your communications, brand, marketing, strategy or insight verticals. I have found from my experience that design thinkers wherever they are housed tend to connect dots horizontally between verticals to proactively find, build, script, present and tell great stories. This is second nature for us at our Studio where design polyglots constantly wear the hat of ‘chief storytelling officers’ to - drive innovation, build case studies, model success/failure, engender inclusivity and foster collaboration, understand and connect with people at various levels, gather insights, build shared narratives, construct immersive experiences, define winning goals, promote values & culture, deliver results and finally help build the corporation’s identity.

We have several compelling stories to tell. I will leave you with a story about our story. You will notice that it connects the dots vividly across previous editorials leading perhaps to my next one. Again inspired by Calvino’s literary genius, for this story we conjured up well-known design thinkers to string together our narrative in manifesto form.

Act 1:

"You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." - Steve Jobs

The story is important. So here’s quoting our conversations and looking back to connect the dots. We like to know where we came from to chart a course to where we are going. Should our story and work interest you, we invite you to visit us in Vikhroli for a meet and greet.

Act 2:

"Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design." - Charles Eames

About 4 years ago, we felt that the idea of ‘Design in India’ would build on our group’s 119-year-old rich legacy of ‘Make in India’. We founded the GPL Design Studio. Why is design important today? - Because we believe in our values, our legacy and our promise to customers for making their lives meaningfully and authentically brighter. We aspire to be a design led company.

Act 3:

"A shoe is not only a design, but it’s a part of your body language, the way you walk. The way you’re going to move is quite dictated by your shoes." -Christian Louboutin

Where does one begin, particularly in a thriving and rapidly growing real estate organization? We decided on a systems approach. We mapped the then design vertical as the new ‘business horizontal’. We built a sole of design thinking for hacking, creative problem solving and continuous innovation to support every business run at multiple touch points all the way from project/deal feasibility, economics, visioning, design development, construction, handover and after sales service.

Act 4:

"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality." - Walt Disney

This is about putting people at the heart of our enterprise both internally as well as externally. We were about 8-10 people about 4 years ago in the design vertical. Today our innovation engine consists of 60 + diverse subject matter experts and design polyglots operating as a design horizontal across the country. We use human centric design thinking based on consumer empathy to solve for process, people, product and experiences.

Act 5:

"Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making memorable meaningful." - Dieter Rams

This is where a story within a story comes in yet again. Our dots are now connecting. We are working in 12 cities with over 120 mn. sq.ft. under development across diverse asset classes. Our learning curve has been steep and exciting in going from memorable to meaningful and authentic. We use storytelling and a narrative based approach in everything we do to make innovation the cornerstone of our corporation’s culture. Our design led projects have the highest customer satisfaction scores and they exemplify the best standards in environmental sustainability worldwide.

Act 6:

"Good design is good business." -Thomas J. Watson

For us the business of design and the design of business go hand in hand. Our math geeks constantly quantify tangible returns from qualitative design thinking output across industries, services and geographies. We now have a proven track record of unmistakably generating higher margins, profits and returns for all stakeholders (with clear correlation) from design led projects. We are now consulting across Group companies in other sectors to generate sustainable returns. Several international awards later we remain humbled by how much work is yet to be done by design in the world of business – the opportunities are endless.

Act 7:

"Design is the silent ambassador of your brand."   - Paul Rand

Think about all the successful companies, products and experiences you have encountered. Barring nature and happy accidents, everything beautiful, memorable, meaningful and successful is designed. You play a decisive part in this story to enjoy and experience it, otherwise it has little meaning. Design has always been the silent ambassador of your brand. Design thinking can (among other useful merits) proactively help see the forest through the trees and by using the art of story telling it can vocalise your brand with soul, senses, colour, wonder and celebration.


Author: Anubhav Gupta, Chief Executive Officer - Vikhroli | Chief CSR & Sustainability Officer | Founder GPL Design Studio at Godrej Properties Limited

Anubhav Gupta is Executive Vice President and Chief Design Officer at Godrej Properties, where he founded the GPL Design Studio.

Anubhav studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cambridge University  and is a trained architect, urban planner, and economist.

The views shared by the author are his own.

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