Problematic Story-telling and Design

It's strange how these things seem to come in groups, but I have had a number of discussions this week about "Cultural appropriation" and appropriate representation.  From my experience, the moment you bring up this topic, your audience divides into two very polarized groups.  The first starts pointing out that all cultures share ideas and change constantly, and the second group brings up the way Western Europeans have strip-mined cultures and left the remains as wastelands.

Guys - IMHO, both are true.  Seth's 2nd Law, "If I can frame both sides of an argument as assholes, you are having the wrong argument."  I think this is one of those times we need to examine "Why" more than "what."

Before we start - I'm going to use the words "story" and "design" almost interchangeably in this post.  'Story' is a verbal construct and 'design' a verbal/visual one that supports the story.  

I think as you approach a story, there are 2 common starting points.  The first is, "I have a story to tell!"  The second is "I'd like to tell a story with <xxx> in it!"  The first has functionality embedded within it.  The second has style embedded.

Yes, "Style".  Saying, "I'd like to tell a story about a strong female lead!" isn't about function of the story.  You are in essence saying you want one element of the story to be more important than the other ones, BEFORE YOU START WRITING.  Same thing applies to visual/cultural forms.  "I'd like to tell a story set in feudal Japan." is another style point.  You are setting what your design should look like ahead of what your design should *do*.

Disney has been especially good/bad about this.  You can tell when they have approached a movie from one way or the other.  Both options *may* come out alright in the end - but I think if you looked at the development of say, "Tangled" compared to "Moana", the paths they took would be obvious.

A'ight, what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?  Obviously, this is a hugely complex issue, but when I boil it down, I see 90% of the evils of 'CA' coming from option #2.  Without a story to drive things before you start designing, what you tend to get is people trying to be different, or cool, or pay homage to things they don't really understand.

My friend Chris Oatley posted up a Hemingway quote this week talking about good writing being true writing.  You should write what you understand.  If you have a story you want to tell, then almost by definition, you understand it.  If your main character is an orphan boy from the streets of Meiji Era Tokyo, you know *why*, and you know that it is probably important.  If you start with, "I want to write about an Meiji Era street orphan", you don't have any of that truth built into the story...and I would have to ask, "Why Tokyo?"  What is it about your story that prevents the orphan from being from Rome, or London, or New York?  Unless you grew up in that city, why the urge to make your character from there WITHOUT A COMPELLING STORY REASON FIRST?

When you have a story/design you need to create and you borrow from where you need to in order to make it, you are filling an actual need.  Taking ideas and best practices from cultures is how we grow - information wants to be free.  Taking things "because they are cool" is to take for your personal gain instead of to meet a need.  There is a MUCH greater chance of mis-representation, because more than likely, you don't really need or even care that much about the back story, it is the romance and the difference that appeals to you.

In the story-based approach, you are asking and answering "Why" something needs to be included.  In the "Contains <xxx>" approach, you are asking "Why not?"  It's pretty much human nature that if we want something and the question we ask is "Why not take it?"....we're gonna take it.

Great, ethical design and storytelling places function ahead of form.  They don't just look cool, they do something.  They function based on the solid principles of what we know.

Even the most well-meaning person can get tripped up with form-based design and storytelling that borrows from things they don't understand.  If you want to see cultures and people represented in things, step away from the pencil and do your best to help THOSE PEOPLE tell their own stories, don't try to tell stories for them.

Have faith in the things that make you *you*.  Your own ideas and culture are plenty interesting, and there are thousands of stories you can tell that are personal to you.  As you have intersected with different people and different cultures, so too can your stories, but start them from your base of experience, don't think you can "put yourself in the shoes" of another simply because you really like the things you've learned about their way of life.  The truer you stay to your experience, the truer your story will resonate....yet another reason why it is important for concept artists to broaden their experiences.

I lived in Japan for two years, and studied its history for years before that.  I speak Japanese moderately well, and I thought I'd be able to understand things and fit right in.  Ah, Kruger-Dunning.  Two years after I got there, I was more convinced than ever that I would NEVER understand that culture as anything but an outsider.  I'd be happy to make a story about my experiences, but I would never try to write a first person POV about what it would be like to grow up and be from there.  I could do it well enough to fool other Europeans, but it would be totally lacking in the authenticity to convince an actual Japanese person.  The world doesn't need more white guys explaining how the rest of the world thinks.

Hey, thanks for reading this last post of 2016.  I'm super grateful to everyone who has read this blog and been a part of my artistic life in the last year, and I have high hopes and big plans for the new year!