Storytelling in 3 Dimensions

As I write this, a global fellowship of current and former Disney Imagineers is mourning the passing of Marty Sklar, the former president and principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the eclectic group that creates Disney theme parks, attractions and destinations around the world. It was said that Marty knew the Disney way, because he learned it at Walt Disney’s knee.

Although trained as a writer, Marty understood the art of telling stories in three-dimensional space. He led generations of artists, architects, designers and producers in this unique art form, teaching us the power of allowing people to enter stories and finding ways to touch their hearts and emotions through our work.

One of the most succinct treatises on this unique approach was first presented by Marty in 1991. “Mickey’s 10 Commandments” is still pinned on the walls of many of my colleagues. I believe these rules are relevant to church leaders and pastors who understand the power of story to transform lives and the potential to tell stories from beyond a platform.

Let me elaborate on how we have interpreted and operationalized each one of the “commandments” into our spatial storytelling practice.

1. Know your audience
One of the first questions we ask is, “Who are we designing for?” Every story starts with understanding collective character and personality, including demographics, psychographics, spiritual landscape and motivation. An environment looks radically different when you’re designing for those sitting in the first row versus those driving past outside.

2. Wear your guests’ shoes.
Although Walt Disney understood the value of research and surveys, he regularly spent the night in Disneyland at his firehouse apartment above Main Street, went out incognito, waited in line and mixed it up with employees and visitors, constantly with an eye for improvement. I like to start our Blue Sky workshop week by being a “mystery guest,” arriving at our client’s church or facility unannounced and trying to sneak my coffee in to a sanctuary to observe how that is handled.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas.
Make sure there is a logic and sequence in your stories and the way they are experienced. Walt Disney first created the storyboarding process for the animated-film industry and then introduced it to the architecture/urban design field, where the story arc is fleshed out visually scene by scene. For most pastors, storytelling starts with a sermon, or maybe a worship set list, rather than at the street level or the virtual front porch of a website.

4. Create a “wienie.”
A “wienie” was Walt Disney’s term for the hot dog that he used as a Midwestern farm boy to get his dog where he wanted it to go. Create a “wienie” or a visual magnet to lead visitors clearly and logically throughout your church environment. A visual magnet (such as Cinderella’s Castle) pulls and moves the masses in ways that directional signage could never do as effectively. Can someone pulling onto your campus instantly identify where kids, adults and students are supposed to go without reading a sign?

5. Communicate with visual literacy.
Make good use of nonverbal communication: color, shape, form, texture. This is perhaps the biggest design differential between average facilities and the destinations designed by multidisciplinary spatial storytellers. Architects and engineers that are focused on functional space do not often integrate other disciplines into the process.

6. Avoid overload, create turn-ons.
Many of our clients understand the value of editing a book, a sermon or a movie down to its core story arc. In spatial storytelling, a creative director ensures that “less is more” but not a bore, particularly when stewarding limited resources that could be spent on other programs.

7. Tell one story at a time.
Stick to the story line. Good stories are clear, logical and consistent. When integrating story into space—whether it’s a church environment or a theme park—lifespan is a key issue. Sermons can change weekly, sermon series can change monthly, but the story that is told internally and externally in three-dimensional space needs to have a foundation in your ecclesia’s unique tribal personality. We distill that in a discovery process we call the “Story Circle,” where we extract in three circles your collective character, setting and plot. Where the three circles overlap, we articulate a “Big Idea” and a “Storyline” that can be visually communicated by anyone experiencing the space, before they ever find a seat in the auditorium.

8. Avoid contradictions.
Are there aspects of your facility that are inconsistent with the story that you would like to tell to visitors? Are there elements that speak more about where you’ve been rather than where you’re going as a church? Details in design or content that contradict one another confuse an audience about your story.

9. For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of treat.
Walt Disney said you can educate people, but don’t tell them you’re doing it. Instead, make it fun. One of the key differences between what we do and other church designers do is that they consider themselves “institutional” architects. Institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons are places that people have to go to. We tend to work on destinations that people choose to go to. For example, kids should (and do) drag their parents to church when they are provided with experiential-discovery environments that are flexible, changeable and dynamic.

10. Keep it up.
Too often in ministry, it is assumed that once a carpet is laid, it will be there until the day Jesus returns. The concept of a facilities-enhancement capital program is a foreign concept. Keeping everything the same may be fine for church members that think of the church as their “home away from home” and believe the budget is better spent elsewhere. However, the first time a visitor notices the nursery has ratted carpets, peeling paint and baseboard molding, they may have a different opinion.

Mel McGowan, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building.

Mel McGowan
Mel McGowan

Mel McGowan is an Outreach Magazine contributing editor and the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. He also is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space (PlainJoe Studios) and serves as an adjunct professor at California Baptist University’s College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design.