Having well-designed content will make people stay longer, remember your brand, and come back for more. However, no matter how clean your design is, bad content will turn readers away in a hurry. If content quality isn’t an issue, your brand’s story could be in need of a UX makeover.
Readers and customers know the difference between bland and enticing presentation. According to Xerox, adding colorful visuals to content boosts readership by 80 percent. It’s not just reading — well-designed content featuring proper images motivates people to share your message on social media. BuzzSumo found that articles with an image every 75-100 words got more than double the social shares, compared to articles with fewer images. Here’s the full chart, showing social shares and image placement. Platforms are making it easier for publishers and marketers to present content in a visually-pleasing way without needing to hire an art department. Smaller businesses don’t need a photographer or videographer on staff to really tell visual stories. The quality of stock images has risen over the years. For many companies, customers are already generating great images and video — telling their own story about the brand. If stock photos have failed you and you’re not handy with a camera, looking into user-generated content can also help spruce up a brand story.
Find the Right Format
Consider Facebook’s Instant Articles: a major trade-off for publishers. While publishers relinquish some control over their content, utilizing Instant Articles allows that content to be smooth and clean on mobile. Facebook notes that Instant Articles load 10x faster than standard mobile web stories and readers are 70 percent less likely to abandon the article — proving how vital clean design is to the user experience. These aren’t just for publishers like Vox or The Washington Post. Recently, Intel became the first brand to use Facebook’s Instant Articles, via its tech-focused publication iQ. As Facebook builds out better analytics for this product, as well as more ways to monetize Instant Articles, brands will add it to their storytelling repertoire. It’s native advertising taken to the max. The success of Facebook’s Instant Articles shows that people want their content to look great, be easy to read and load quickly. Even if you’re not looking into Instant Articles, you can look at ways to make your brand stories more user-friendly. More brands and C-level executives are flocking to blogging platforms like Medium as a way to present stories more cleanly. Website builders such as Squarespace can help brands go from boring to engaging. Brands are enacting innovative techniques to earn someone’s attention, creating content through avenues such as interactive video, gamification and branching narratives. If the blog post isn’t working for you, try a video or slideshow. The best brand storytelling isn’t a hard sell about the company, but rather offering the brand as a platform for a compelling narrative. Check out Patagonia, an outdoor retailer. While their home page features product placement, they know their end customer is likely passionate about the environment. Patagonia produced a short film about the power of industrial hemp, and the way the video is featured on the company’s prime real estate is beautiful.
Most People Won’t See Your Big Finish
No matter how great the written content is, most of your readers will tune out or get distracted by something else before they reach the conclusion. When Slate wanted to find out how long their readers scroll, they tapped Chartbeat to do a study. While many people don’t bother scrolling at all, most readers got about halfway down the page before bailing. The highest percentage of completion? Those who saw photo and video content. The takeaway is that great content, by itself, is not enough. Readers need some kind of visual to keep their interest. Jerry Cao, a UX content strategist at the wireframing and prototyping app UXPin, offered some tips for effective storytelling design in a post on The Next Web. His advice? Don’t be complex for the sake of complexity, and listen to what your readers want. “An engaging story doesn’t have to be complex or elaborate. In some cases, you can tell a cohesive story with just one image,” Cao wrote. “If your story can be told with a single image, then don’t use twenty. But if your story needs twenty visuals to work well and be understood, then definitely don’t try to do it in eight. It’s all about making your story as detailed or simple as it needs to be: no more, no less.” The first question you need to ask before composing your brand story is this: “What do my readers/fans/customers want to see?” Writing a brand story to serve the brand leads to low page views, a disinterested consumer base, and a frustrated CMO. Composing your narrative with the user in mind will only help your cause.
A Primer in Visual Storytelling
“Great design is storytelling at its finest.” –Jim Antonopoulos 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.
1. 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 oftentimes 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: 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.
2. 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.
- Iconic: Images that look like what they represent. Iconic visuals are denotative, providing a literal meaning the reader will understand at first glance.
- Symbolic: Images that arbitrarily symbolize something else. Symbolic visuals are connotative, providing an implied meaning through cultural context.
- 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.
3. Build a Visual Arc that Follows the Narrative Arc
Most stories follow a predictable narrative arc that looks something like this: 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:
- Linear: Shows the passage of time or space in one image.
- Aggregate: Shows relationships between multiple parts on a single image.
- Paneled: Shows change over time and space using multiple images.
4. 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.