Effective Visual Storytelling

This chapter includes information about:

  • How visuals contribute to storytelling
  • How images communicate messages that influence perceptions
  • How visual elements can be combined to tell new stories

As you’ve probably heard, the Internet changed everything. We’re more connected than ever, anyone can publish content online, and communication industries are dramatically transforming to make use of new technology. But the latest media buzzword harkens back to an idea from ancient times: the power of storytelling.

Successful design makes a story memorable and compelling. In this video, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute explains how this popular 2014 Super Bowl ad uses carefully planned visuals to tell the story of a puppy’s friendship with a neighboring horse:

The Power of Images

A single photograph can tell a story, and images have the power to change public perceptions and influence policy.

LewisHine
In the early part of the 20th Century, Lewis Hine took photographs of children working in factories and on city streets. His images helped change child labor laws. (Photos from Getty Open Content Program)

Images communicate a message that can evoke emotions and change opinions or perception. Recently, to counteract stereotypes in stock images that are widely used in marketing materials, Getty Images and LeanIn.org launched a collection of images that feature women in more realistic and empowering ways.

stockimages-women
Stock images of professional women from Shutterstock (left) and the Getty LeanIn Collection (right).

Designing Visual Stories

Through thoughtful design, images and visual elements can be combined to create new meaning. Think of movie posters, which use visual elements to tell the story of a particular movie. Even if you haven’t seen the following movies, you can tell from the design of these posters which movies are dramas, comedies and action flicks.


Below are three print advertisements promoting state health insurance exchanges. All of these ads have a similar purpose, but each tells a unique story and has its own design. Click each one to view it more closely.

For each of the three designs, think about these questions:

  • Is it clear what the designer is trying to say?
  • Does the design tell a clear story?
  • Who is the audience for the design?

Finally, ask yourself which of these designs you think is most successful? Why?