Sagmeister and the ‘bullshit’ around storytelling

Stefan Sagmeister has vehemently dismissed the current vogue among creative types to label themselves ‘storytellers’ as ‘bullshit’.

Stefan Sagmeister has vehemently dismissed the current vogue among creative types to label themselves ‘storytellers’ as ‘bullshit’.

In an uncharacteristically irascible interview for FITC, the organisers of the Camp festival in Calgary, Sagmeister attacks the urge for those in the communications industry to rush to re-assign themselves as storytellers, the theme of the conference. “Now everybody’s a storyteller,” he says, before dismissing the trend as “bullshit”


Some commenters on Vimeo, where the film was posted, disagreed, particularly with his definition of storytellers as only those who write novels or make movies.

Here, they have a point. Of course storytelling exists beyond those narrow confines, it always has. But I think Sagmeister’s thrust was directed more at the way that ‘storytelling’ has been latched onto by the advertising and marketing worlds to the extent that every corporate drone in chinos and a polo shirt is now spouting about it in their conference Powerpoint presentations.

It’s almost become as ubiquitously nonsensical as ‘content’, the misuse of which Gordon Comstock and Sell Sell railed against with great passion here.

At Cannes this year it seemed as though almost every session had a ‘storytelling’ theme as if this were some amazing new discovery. People like stories you say? Wow, amazing insight!

Perhaps some of these ‘thought leaders’ need to get their, er, stories straight. Here’s Mainardo De Nardis of OMD telling us that “Storytelling is the capacity to create and distribute content which is relevant for audiences across whatever platform” – it is? Wasn’t that ‘integrated’, or is that just what we were calling it two years ago? He also says that “without storytelling we go back to 30 second spots which is not the way our brains need to be communicated with to create real engagement”


And yet, at the same event, his peers on the jury were busy handing out award after award to this, a commercial (remember them?) that, in its form and content, could have been made at any time in the last 40 years (Solvite anyone?)


‘Storytelling’ has been at the heart of some of the greatest advertising campaigns. What’s this if it’s not telling a great story, for example


And the famous BBH Levi’s ads were all about telling stories around some of the unique features of the product


Now we have online films with longer narratives about brands, their users and their community



And we have new, powerful tools to tell stories in multifaceted ways, such as some of the brilliant pieces currently coming out of the National Film Board of Canada



Storytelling is universal and as old as the human race. But that doesn’t mean we are all storytellers in everything we do.

In the film, Sagmeister rages about a rollercoaster designer who referred to himself as a storyteller: “No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a rollercoaster designer!” Being a rollercoaster designer sounds a pretty cool job – surely that’s enough? Why the need to dress it up as something else?

This, I think, is the crux of the matter. The ad industry is searching for a role for itself in a communications world that has become very complex. The old certainties no longer apply. It has leaped on ‘Storytelling’ as a means of defining what it offers that none of the data geeks or algorithms can.

So thank goodness for Sagmeister for puncturing this particular bullshit bubble with such alacrity. Of course it helps if you’ve got something interesting to say about your product or organisation, of course telling a powerful story will stick in people’s minds and make them feel positive toward you. Yes, we now have lots of different ways to tell such stories. Didn’t we know all this already?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of conference bollocks, can we please all stop saying “learnings’?


  • Peck

    Exactly! Wht the need to dress everything up as ‘storytelling’! In absolute agreement with the ‘crux of the matter’!

  • Steve B

    The video is what’s bullshit. What is the point of comparing a roller coaster designer with a graphics/communications designer? Rollercoaster designers design a fun experience, graphic designers actual tell stories with type and images. Duh!

  • PG

    Stefan’s a pretty good storyteller. He has turned himself into a story for many a year now.

    Awesome he may be. Devoid of the bullshit he attacks he is not.

  • Peter

    “So thank goodness for Sagmeister for puncturing this particular bullshit bubble with such alacrity.” — Not sure this counts as alacrity. Mike Judge made the point in a way that excited us in Silicon Valley, where it was just one element of a much larger joke. Sagmeister, for some reason, made an entire video dedicated to a point we all already know: jargon exists. The worst part is that we’re paying attention to him as he says it.

  • jon

    neither is telling stories. they’re telling themes and over-arching narratives, but neither is in itself a story. that’s the missing point.

  • Luke Tonge, Optical Innovator / Visual Wizard

    Saw the stink kicked up by this on twitter last night with a lot of people ‘for’ and ‘against’ the outspoken Saggy’s point of view. I don’t really care (or don’t think it really matters) what you call yourself or your occupation as language and meaning is always evolving, and people will always find new ways to try and make their offer more compelling or evoke a different response.

    Of course if i’d been touting myself as a visual storyteller i’d probably take offence! Equally, I too get frustrated with all the bandwagon buzzwords if they are inappropriate or meaningless. I’m sure when people started calling themselves ‘graphic designers’ there was some backlash from the commercial artists?

    I also can’t help but feeling with everything else going on in the world, its a petty storm in a teacup and no-one outside our bubble gives a hoot.

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Peter
    Sagmeister didn’t make the video. It was made on behalf of a conference which has ‘storytellers’ as its theme. He was asked his opinion on that theme – and gave it

  • Brian Bozic

    I’d understand if people in design and communication portrayed themselves as storytellers in opposition to some unenlightened past where their forebears were not storytellers. But this just isn’t the case.
    Storytelling has long been part of the toolkit of designers, copywriters, ad execs and other ‘creatives’ (that’s a term I have more of an issue with).

    If anything, they are cleverly (or shamelessly) latching onto a theme that has taken hold in their target market (i.e. other businesses), the better to sell their wares.

  • Ed

    Well, it made me laugh.

    ‘No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer’. Brilliant.

    If you give more of a shit about what you’re called rather than making whatever you’re making, your priorities are all fucked up.

  • John D

    can’t wait to see Sagmeisters ‘you are not a storyteller’ poster, spelt out with actual bull turds.

  • maxworth

    nice storytelling Sagm and CR

  • Jared Lucey

    Old Sag seems to spend more time these days telling us stories than actually DOING anything of merit.
    Like his ongoing HAPPY project. Talk about bullshit. He has become design’s official emperor with no clothes, literally.

  • http://yyz daver

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  • Shinji Pons

    “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.”

    ― Stefan Sagmeister

  • Em

    Refreshingly – great- wish he hadn’t used such violent language – fuck head was a bit OTT! I think he should have qualified his point a bit more. Some designers are story tellers some are not. You can have an idea or a series of linked ideas coming together to be behind the creation of an object/product and anyone pitching this product could be guilty of telling the story/background of its creation.I think there are many examples of tv and film adverts telling a story and whoever wrote these ads and the copy writing/script could call themselves story tellers, no? One thing I cannot stand however, is every bullshitting conceptual artist crapping on about “the narrative”‘ in their going- nowhere- void- of- ideas-“conceptual” work. They think that squeezing the word “narrative” into every piece of writing about their work will give it some value/interest/quality. All art speak and photography speak , coming from the artist, the art critics, “curators” etc now has to include the wanky lingo “trope”, “narrative”, “notions of” always meaningless. What narrative is there in a blank wall? What story is in a collection of images flashed before your eyes all vaguely related in all these tedious video installations. There’s never a coherent story, never a true narrative.As in some adverts we are meant to put together the story. How can the creators of these ads call themselves storytellers???

  • CrownECakes

    who cares?

  • Mike Abrahams

    If people want to call themselves storytellers – why is that a problem?
    Why the need to get so excited?
    This is like the debate from the early years of the 20th century as what is art and therefore who can be called an artist?
    Up until Duchamp – it was the establishment – the galleries – the patrons who decided what is art. Duchamp said that the maker decides if something is art and demonstrated this by his series of ready mades, his 1917 urinal signed R Mutt is the best example of this. The rest is history.
    So if the roller coaster designer wants to be called a storyteller, that’s fine with me, does it really matter?

  • Matt

    He got his story wrong… and by default this whole thing has become bullshit unfortunately.

    People love fads & labels, it helps to categorise and group them into being current and leading the way. If enough people go with the bullshit then everyone gets taken for a ride… until it wares thin / the next one comes along.

    The thing that is prevalent right now is the amount of storytelling/bullshit used to sell a new identity &/or brand. There has been soo much of it in the design press recently where an average logo is sold by all of the bullshit that comes with it, form the wanky analogy to the WiP visuals and pointless animations.

    It doesn’t seem as though it can be judged on what it is without all of the ‘Beautiful Fluff©’ around it to justify it works.

    Everything revolves/evolves around a story – its what gives a project legs and helps to create the solution.

    Big Spaceship summed it up with their quote about creativity:

    “No one has creative in their title – creativity is the cost of entry”.

    The same should apply to the storytellers…

  • Rich

    Certainly evokes discussion, which isn’t a bad thing – I agree with an earlier comment about the language, just no need for it. I understand what he’s saying but not sure I care enough to dip in with my thoughts. One thing I will say – I re-discovered peanut butter recently, was a great day. Fieldinspired.

  • Ben

    Not the point right here; but in some extend, we have nowadays a huge amount of “multitasks” folks, you know, the ones who writes below their twitter/linked name that they are “funder, entrepreneur, graphic designer, entertainer, whatever…”

    The more they write down, the less they actually might be doing.

    Man you’re a marketer, or a producer, or a graphic designer (your might tell stories but you’re actually a graphic designer, no needs to emphasize on anythin else right?), or A ROLLER COASTER DESIGNER

  • Phil

    ‘Bullshit prevalent in marketing & advertising’. Since when did that become headline news? Must be a slow day over at CR HQ!

  • Fred Vanderpoel

    Here’s an ad that is a story:

    For sale, baby shoes, never used.

  • Darren

    Helping a brand tell its story does not make you a storyteller any more than me telling you a story about space makes me an astronaut. As creatives we are communicators, be content with that. Dress it up as you like to make it sound romantic and more appealing, but we all help brands sell more stuff, it is what we do.

  • John

    Everybody has already said stuff about Saggy and the article. Except the last line.


    Do we call meals “eatings”? Do we call books “readings”?

    No. No we don’t.

    We eat meals. We read books. We learn lessons.


  • Geoff Naylor

    Wasn’t that Ernest Hemingway’s story in 6 words, Fred? It reminds me of Nash’s two word poem ‘Fleas’; Adam had’em.

  • Thrilly

    It’s funny that anyone needs to vent their opinion on a light subject (but very interesting, nonetheless) with such anger and profanity. It’s as though that the more obscene the remark – said with such alacrity, as the article mentions – the “bigger” it becomes; especially when someone as highly-regarded as Sagmeister says it. I’m all for strong language, but it seems daft in this context.

    Whatever your opinion on “storytelling,” try communicating your message in a way that you don’t sound like a contrived idiot.

  • Danny Boy

    These are the teaches of peaches

  • Johnzero


  • benir koranache

    I’ve met Herr Stefan year ago – and he was as frank then as he is NOW. He’s also pretty damn GOOD ‘Erzähler’!! 😉

  • Bill

    Never heard of this Sagmeister fella but he sounds like an absolute joker… Surely it’s all about storytelling… Just that he doesn’t like the stories or they aren’t high brow enough. Maybe if the story was scrawled on a naked body it would be more worthy… If a roller coaster designer can tell a story in 8 seconds… Fair play.

  • David Thompson

    Imagine the embarrassment for us… He has a point about the over-use of the term/theme/meme/whatever you want to call it, which has really gone into overdrive in the last year or so. It still works for us though, and we still like the Charlatans too.

  • Andrew Golden

    This just makes me think of “Bullshit Words.” It’s something that got brought up at a recent talk I went to and it basically asks everyone to think of 6 words used all the time in design that have started to mean nothing or that have been totally abused. I feel like storytelling is becoming a bullshit word.

    The worst bullshit word for me is “innovative.” Who the fuck isn’t innovative?! Or trying to be? It just means nothing.

  • graham wood

    A couple of fascinating presentations on related subjects, here and here

  • Marco

    Shut up Greg

  • Frank

    I’m going to create a startup that has synergy in its storytelling.

    Also, can we get Arnold to say “It’s bullshit! This storytelling thing is all bullshit!”

    Storytelling is the new black. Or maybe storytelling is the new 20.

  • Jeff Brown

    One should expect Steph to be telling a bit of story here. He is a shameless self promoter, as is Walsh.. if there’s something trending he’ll add some of his own bullshit story to be dragged into the slip stream.

    It’s fame whoring 101 and they’re both brilliant at it! Expect plenty more stories from S&W

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Jeff Brown
    …except that, as it says in the piece, he was asked by the conference organisers to give his views on their theme for their promotional video. Which he did. He is great at self-promotion though

  • Oliver

    Cool story bro

  • theawkwardstag

    Don’t agree entirely but it’s nice to see him doing something other than get his nob out for attention. Only a matter of time until everyone is a new buzzword anyway.

    On the topic of over/misused terms, can we stop calling everyone an entrepreneur? Owning a business does not an entrepreneur make (that would be a business owner)

  • Harry

    As a UX Designer, who occasionally has to tell story ABOUT a design, I completely agree.

    My design is not a story, it’s a design.

    A story may have gone into the creation of the design, but the product itself is just that: a product.

  • Tofurky

    “Once upon a time there was a designer…THE END”

  • Clifton Lemon

    Once upon a time, there was a little organism that noticed that when the light came, more food was available. It began to remember this fact, and passed the ability to remember on to its offspring, who thrived. Eventually over millions of years the organisms evolved into humans, who will see stories anywhere, even in ads and strange little internet video rants. This is how we make sense of the world cognitively, and this sense-making is at the root of our ability to survive and evolve. The end (sort of).

  • Giorgio

    I am in total agreement, storytelling is so overused that it has lost its original meaning, hence it is now bullshit.

  • Konrad Pitala

    Well, now all self marketing gurus will go for something new… I suggest “creative sales illusionist”. I agree that many people care about labels, stickers and all that corporate hierarchy. But sometimes it sounds a little bit funny… If you are able to communicate, it doesn’t mean you are a storyteller… Even when you write a novel, and publish it by yourself. It’s a matter of other people who verify and prove you talent, and may call you a “storyteller” then.

    I met once a guy who was self-employed and titled himself a “president of the board”… It looks like a cheap and totally misused marketing trick…

  • John Dowling

    There are innocent men, women and children being killed around the world. yet we argue about ‘storytellers’. This whole article is pointless and Sagmeister has yet again jumped on the band wagon in order to get some air play. Shame.

  • Cove Digital

    It’s hard not to smile watching this. Storytelling: You know what they say….
    Marketers ruin everything!

  • brand68

    Love it when people go against the grain and I agree with some of what he is saying but unfortunately his argument / story isn’t intelligent enough…