The future of storytelling

Alex McDowell

Two key themes emerged from this year’s edition of the annual inspiration station, Design Indaba: empathic design and storytelling.

Design Indaba 2016 was back at the home where it started – the Artscape theatre complex in Cape Town, bringing a more festive and inclusive atmosphere to this dynamic event on the creative industries’ calendar.

It was fitting that on its 21st ‘birthday’, it reinvented itself once again:  bringing music, theatre and performance art onto the stage and outside the venue, where everyone congregated around Cape Town’s famous food trucks; becoming more ‘street’ and more unified.

Design Indaba founder and CEO, Ravi Naidoo, has big plans for the future,  to make Design Indaba – which has always attracted speakers from the best creative agencies, design shops, brands, arts and global influencers in various crafts – more experiential and more of a festival than a conference.

The expo is no longer in a hall. Instead delegates are encouraged to take to the streets on specific evenings to experience ‘open’ Cape Town at various galleries and art installations; through music, film and theatre; and various other events in the city linked to the future of design across many spheres.

Design Indaba has always been at the cutting edge of new design thinking, best of breed, standing head and shoulders above anything else in the world in this category of event (probably only the mega-SXSW technology and art festival in Austin, Texas, USA, comes close to the level of innovation and thought leadership).

I’ve been attending Design Indaba for a decade and there is always one speaker who changes your life with their work and their philosophy on changing the world – because that is what modern design thinking is all about, how to make the world a better place through developing global solutions to the world’s problems through creativity and empathic design.

Immersive storytelling

This year didn’t disappoint and for me, that speaker was Alex McDowell, an award-winning designer and immersive storyteller, who builds future worlds and global solutions. As founder and creative director of 5D Global Studio, he works at the intersection of emergent technologies and experiential media, building film sets for futuristic movies like Minority Report, Fight Club, and Man of Steel.

He is also a Professor of Practice at USC School of Cinematic Arts where he is the director of the USC World Building Media Lab at the California school, also leading the USC World Building Institute [], a renowned multidisciplinary knowledge space.

McDowell uses disruptive narratives to imagine – and build – tomorrow’s world today. Storytelling is a way to make sense of the world around us – it has been that way since the first humans used stories to aggregate experiences for future generations.

The problem with current storytelling, is that through books and movies, we have become used to the narrative coming from a single individual at a time, who steers us in a directed way, says McDowell, rather than from our collective ‘tribe’.

He is enthralled with this new ‘post-cinematic’ era we are going into, where virtual reality tools will transform our narrative through immersive storytelling.

“Virtual, mixed reality tools do something more than provide a new gimmick to sell hardware, they fundamentally change the narrative space. We need to pay attention to the entire world space for the sphere of opportunities around us. This is as big a disruption as the beginning of cinema. And it will fundamentally change how we feel about storytelling.

“The tribal stories that were told to help us survive are back in our hands. We probably need these kinds of stories to help us survive the current craziness. (Immersive storytelling) is specifically to do with how the narrative is embedded in the world around us,” McDowell recounts.

“The origin of storytelling is now at the centre, it is no longer linear narrative. The world space is constantly informed by the human story at its centre. We all inform each other and the world evolves and becomes more and more informed.”

A brave new world

When he conceptualised the world for the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, there was no script. The story evolved from the world that McDowell imagined – as did several dozen inventions that we are exposed to today, like driverless  cars, drones, gesture-led communications devices. All imagined for the movie, and now part of our real world.

“The design of the (Minority Report) world preceded the telling of the story. The world became a container for the telling of hundreds of stories, if we had wanted. World building stimulates complex systems. We looked at mobility, time and space, the individual and his or her environment, large scale wearables, transportation and how it would change through a new language for vehicles… We could have looked into the future of urban planning, the effects of the environment on the consumer, how it changes the future of shopping, for example…” he explains.

And herein lies McDowell’s contribution to society – using his creative skills and knowledge to help imagine real-world solutions to society’s ills through the same techniques he uses to for these Hollywood blockbusters.

“Poverty is a social construct, a design flaw. We can undo it. To extrapolate and imagine (a new world)… We use storytelling to create the disruption we need… to powerfully change the world. It is something in our hands today,” says McDowell.

It is a special blend of traditional practice and new technologies to apply his craft to design a new world for the human race. His presentation was mind-blowing, but his impact on our human narrative will most certainly leave a superior legacy for future generations.

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Louise Marsland
Louise Marsland is an editor, journalist and columnist in the media and marketing communications industry in South Africa, who has been writing about the industry for over two decades as a former editor of publications: AdVantage, Marketing Mix and She currently writes extensively about industry trends and consumer insight.


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