Great design is storytelling at its finest. –Jim Antonopoulos

Visual storytelling is not a new concept. Since the caveman days, people have been using visuals to communicate narratives to a wider audience.

Today, we’re no longer limited to paintings on cave walls—we have a variety of storytelling media available to us. Some of these media, like print and film, are well established. We’ve codified the basics of what makes a good story in print and what makes a good story in film. But we’re still learning how to effectively tell visual stories in the digital realm, especially when it comes to brand content.

Much of the work digital designers do at brands day-to-day seems pretty far removed from visual storytelling—in large part because brand content has historically lacked a narrative soul. As brands make a widespread return to story-driven content, the need for visual storytellers will increase rapidly.

The most effective, inspiring visual stories are ones in which graphics, design, and words all work together seamlessly to connect people with new concepts, characters, and communities. Here are 4 key aspects of visual storytelling that digital designers should keep in mind when working on narrative projects.

Start with the Story

Traditional web design often happens in a silo. Many designs are done before there’s any content—and as such, don’t tie closely to the words on the page. Images are sourced for aesthetics instead of meaning, and often times stray far afield from the actual topic or intent of the content they’re supposed to illustrate.

Visual storytelling works in a completely different way. If you’ve ever designed a video storyboard, comic panels, or editorial feature, you know that visual storytelling always starts with—you guessed it—a story. This story guides both the copy and the visuals, which work in tandem to communicate the narrative, like so:

Visual Storytelling: Start with a Story Source: Collider

It’s a fine art to strike the right balance between images and words in any visual storytelling piece. Too many images, and it can be difficult to develop a nuanced story; too many words, and it’s just an ordinary piece of long-form content. Depending on the complexity of your subject matter, the format you choose to tell your story, and the narrative structure you’re working with, you’ll need to adjust the ratio of visuals and text.

Develop Your Own Visual Grammar

Every verbal narrative is constructed using a solid framework of written grammar and style. In the same way, every image-driven story also needs a visual grammar that creates cohesiveness throughout your design.

When constructing a visual grammar, it’s important to consider what kinds of graphic elements will provide the foundation of your approach. There are three primary kinds of visuals you can work with.

Visual Storytelling: Image Approaches

  1. Iconic: Images that look like what they represent. Iconic visuals are denotative, providing a literal meaning the reader will understand at first glance.
  2. Symbolic: Images that arbitrarily symbolize something else. Symbolic visuals are connotative, providing an implied meaning through cultural context.
  3. Indexical: Images that link meaning using a physically or causally connected symbol. Indexical visuals are connotative, providing an implied meaning that must be interpreted by the reader.

Once you’ve defined a clear visual grammar, it’ll be much easier to build out the rest of your story using the elements you’ve already established.

Build a Visual Arc that Follows the Narrative Arc

Most stories follow a predictable narrative arc that looks something like this:

Visual Storytelling: Visual Narrative Arc Source: Paul Gorman

As you choose imagery or create new graphics for a visual story, you’ll want to keep each part of the arc in mind. In the rising tension phase of the story, for example, you’ll want to use more dramatic, impactful imagery; during the denouement, you’ll want to choose visuals that resolve tension and wrap up loose ends.

You can use different types of images to move your story along a narrative arc. The three main types of narrative images are:

  1. Linear: Shows the passage of time or space in one image.
  2. Aggregate: Shows relationships between multiple parts on a single image.
  3. Paneled: Shows change over time and space using multiple images.

Create a Visual Thread that Weaves Through the Story

Stories often involve characters that provide a thread through the entire narrative. Likewise, visual stories often use recurring elements that weave in and out of the design. They ground the reader in the story the same way a character’s perspective does, providing touchstones along the way. This makes the action easier to follow and emphasizes important features the reader shouldn’t overlook.

The Bottom Line

Telling a visual story isn’t the same as designing a website or landing page. Your job is one of co-author, crafting the graphic part of the narrative that intertwines with the verbal part of the story. Following similar steps to that of a traditional writer—nailing down your story, defining you visual grammar, developing a story arc, and finding threads to weave through the entire narrative—you’ll be able to design content that makes a lasting impact on your audience.

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