For Brian Barrus, Creative Director at Studio Element, the term “visual storytelling” perfectly describes what designers do. Barrus has worked with clients like Franklin Covey, Bluehost, Microsoft, and the Navajo nation to tell their brand stories through visual designs ranging from interactive infographics to video content.
“The term ‘visual storytelling’ is a hot trend and I think it’s a new term to a lot of people, but the idea and the fundamentals behind it are universal truths that have always existed within design,” he says. Barrus shared his top tips with us for effective visual storytelling in today’s complex, cross-channel environment.
Rethink Your Approach to Visual Hierarchy
Effective storytelling requires a different approach to the way many designers think about visual hierarchy in their work. Instead of leading with the big idea, designers need to provide visual context early on to help draw viewers into the story.
“In design, there’s a tendency to say, ‘This is what I need you to know, so I’ll make that the first thing you see.’ When you’re telling a story visually, however, you need to approach it differently. First, you set up the context or the problem, and then you deliver the resolution or moral to the story,” says Barrus.
Integrate Visual Cues That Make it Easier to Commit
Design and visual cues are powerful tools for helping engage audiences, especially when they’re reluctant. “Even as video becomes one of the most important visual storytelling formats, people are becoming less willing to commit and click the link, for example. It’s interesting to see how Facebook uses the autoplay feature. Designers can use visual cues like subtitles and playback times to help improve engagement,” Barrus advises.
With Interactive Visual Storytelling, It’s All About the Small Details
As interactive content grows in popularity, many designers find that investing in the small visual details helps bring stories in this format to life: “In one project we worked on, there’s a dog whose eyes move and tail wags. Little ‘Easter eggs’ add interest and entertainment – it’s a good way to get people engaged and hold their interest.”
Consider Attention Span Differences Between Mediums
Gauging the attention span audiences have for different mediums is critical for effective storytelling. For example, you need to get to the point of a story much faster in a social media design than in a layout for a complex white paper. “Many designers overestimate the attention that people are willing to give to what you’re trying to communicate. As a designer, you can fall in love with your own ideas and lose perspective on the end user,” says Barrus.
Don’t Rely on Gimmicks: Tell a Quality Story
Barrus advises against using gimmicks to capture viewers’ attention: “Don’t rely too heavily on gimmicks like motion or animation to trick people into giving their attention. People lose patience and get annoyed quickly unless everything points back to a compelling story.”
Use a Visual Style that Conveys a Brand’s Authenticity
According to Barrus, design is most effective when it moves beyond marketing language and platitudes, and really conveys a brand’s authentic message in a unique way. “It’s important to have a really distinct visual style and to be a little unexpected with how the visuals are executed. Creating a tone of authenticity in visual storytelling is key; when something doesn’t resonate, it pulls the viewer out of the story.”
Don’t Let the Brand Story Just Come from Marketing
Finally, Barrus says that talking to people outside marketing is essential for designers to get a well-rounded sense of a brand’s story: “Talk to different people throughout the company. Usually in design, it’s the marketing person who hired you and you may end up biased by how they see the brand,” warns Barrus. Talking to front line staff, to customers, and to end users can broaden your perspective and help you create story-driven designs that really resonate with your audience.