Career and Jobs

How To Design Ethical Storytelling

How do you tell stories with brands and creatives, ethically?

Nicole Solis-Sison is a multi-racial DACAmented social practice artist, creative director, producer and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Solis-Sison’s work focuses on cultural equity, diversity and sustainability in digital discourse across the art, media and film industries. Her emphasis in digital content strategy has paved the way for brands and talent agencies to streamline their content in emerging markets serving as an educator at General Assembly and creative director for Matter Media Group. Currently, she is a co-producer for a documentary called Undocumented Justice, about the first DACA lawyer, Luis Cortes Romero, to argue a case before the nation’s Supreme Court while serving as a founding member of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective.

Solis-Sison has collaboratively developed the first augmented reality dressing room application for Gap in partnership with Google during her time at Avametric. Solis-Sison’s works have been displayed at Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco, California; The 14th Factory, Los Angeles, California; MOCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C. She has engaged in public speaking events such as Social Media Week Los Angeles, Sundance Film Festival 2020, and BlackStar Film Festival 2020. Solis-Sison received her BFA at University of California, Berkeley. She is the recipient of the 2016 Eisner Award for the Highest Achievement in the Arts.

Chan: How would you define ethical storytelling?

Nicole Solis-Sison: Ethical storytelling has the components of focus and impact. Storytelling is able to influence and inspire. An ethical storyteller’s responsibility is to communicate their focus tied into the mission and vision while being accountable to the community or audience that they impact. With ethical storytelling, there has to be a consistency between what we say and what we do. The lens in which we share these stories are through humanity-based approaches to ethics in which we must ask ourselves who does this story benefit and whom it may harm.

Chan: What was your own journey to finding ethical storytelling?

Solis-Sison: Growing up as an immigrant, I often felt as though there were narratives directed to immigrants that were not in a favorable light or were exploitative on the fact that as immigrants we base our daily habits by means of survival. This immigrant experience nurtured a critical thinking toolkit in me to ask deeper questions around who is telling the story, their intent, purpose, ethics and impact. On a day to day basis, we are consuming fragmented storylines across all our media platforms with tactics not limited to greenwashing, misleading information, twisting facts, false endorsements, discrimination, the list goes on and on. As I developed into my professional career, I am able to bring that critical lens to the stories I craft for brands, organizations and influencers to ensure that we are crafting narratives that are positively impacting people.

Chan: Are there any storytelling guidelines or “rules” that you like to live by?

Solis-Sison:

  1. Ask yourself, are you the best person to tell this story? Don’t tell others’ stories and frame them as your own.
  2. Speak from the truth. Stay true to your facts.
  3. Share stories that can be proven by facts or figures in relation to your mission. Don’t use data or facts to fragment or exaggerate where you actually are with impact.
  4. Don’t put people in situations where they are compelled to tell a story they would not be comfortable sharing. Don’t perform extractive storytelling practices.
  5. Protect identities when telling a story.
  6. Be authentic with your intent and purpose.
  7. Be transparent. Share what is possible and what is not possible.

Chan: What brands or individuals are doing this the right way?

Solis-Sison: Ethical storytelling can be used in various sectors. Here are a list of brands, individuals and organizations that I believe are doing ethical storytelling the right way:

Lush Cosmetics is a cosmetic brand dedicated to creating ethically-sourced, low-waste, and cruelty free products whose brand voice is dedicated to creating a safe environment for their audience that aligns with their products. Their campaign “Social Departure” launched on November 26th, 2021, states “We’re saying goodbye to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok until these platforms can provide a safer environment for their users. The serious effects of social media on mental health are being ignored by these platforms.” The CEO and Co-Founder Mark Contantine, intersects their vision with the statement on their website “I’ve spent all my life avoiding putting harmful ingredients in my products. There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I’m not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it’s time to take it out of the mix.”

ReWeave L.A. is a sustainable luxury brand by interior designers Debbie Ouyang and Julie Benniardi that is transparent with their mission and impact. “We make one of a kind pieces from fabric samples sourced from leading interior design showrooms. We never throw away any contributions. While some pieces might not find a new home immediately, we are committed to placing every swatch within our patchwork designs.”

Asia Jackson draws from their personal experience of being a Black Asian to raise awareness on how Black Asians are often erased from the conversation of Asian representation by sourcing articles and data that support their exclusion. Jackson sources data and ties it back to her own personal experience, “In 2018, Teen Vogue published an article titled, ‘29 Asian Actors You May Not Know But Should’ Of those 29 actors, 10 were mixed with white and 0 were mixed with Black.”

Aja Dang started sharing their $200,000.00 debt journey on their YouTube channel and since then they have been incredibly transparent about their experience getting rid of their debt. She is the first one to share what is possible and not possible when conquering debt. Everyone’s debt looks different. In a recent YouTube Shorts, they share how they create a personalized budget plan for each paycheck while including the tip of “put aside 30% for taxes to save yourself from stress during tax time.”

Define American is a media and culture organization focused on elevating immigrant narratives. They draw from the greater community stories that bring people together to ask “How do you Define American?” Their tactics empower others to share their stories and take ownership of their stories as they offer different perspectives outside of the conversations happening in mainstream media today.

Chan: What are interesting cultural trends for 2022 that you’ve had an eye on?

Solis-Sison: As a creative director for creators, I can’t help but keep an eye on the creator economy that keeps on growing. Largely due to the growth of platforms like Instagram and YouTube paired with emerging platforms like TikTok and Discord, there is a mass emergence of new creators that are now grappling with their own ways of owning their story and the ethics around having such a large platform of influence. Another cultural trend is brand purpose and activism gaining an importance. In a 2018 survey done by Nielson, 81% of consumers feel that companies should take action to improve the environment. Now, with this need to satisfy consumer appetite, it is no wonder brands are taking short cuts by embracing greenwashing tactics rather than improving their business structure.

Chan: What’s one last piece of advice?

Solis-Sison: Ethical storytelling is hard work. It is meant to be. Once you invest in this practice, you will come out the other side proud of what you stand for and the impact you make on people’s lives.


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