7 Strategies for Effective Visual Storytelling

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.


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8 viral ads that won 2015

The Internet has transformed advertising, opening new paths and creating new genres for commercial filmmakers. These are some of the most shared videos of 2015, each viral ad demonstrating ways the Internet continues to disrupt traditional content creation.

1. Android, “Friends Furever”

Smart content creators look at viral videos to learn what people like. Even smarter creators take viral video formats and repurpose them to get their message out. Android’s “Friends Furever” is basically just a YouTube compilation video with a message at the end, but it’s fresh and fun to watch. More importantly, it works—”Friends Furever” was the most viral ad of 2015.

2. Disney Parks, “Disney Characters Surprise Shoppers”

This viral ad uses a tried and true advertising strategy—the filmed live event. Videos in this style tend to feel staged, but “Disney Characters Surprise Shoppers” is surprisingly heartfelt and convincing. Its longer run time (2 minutes, 16 seconds) allows the filmmakers to use more natural pacing in the edit, which gives viewers the chance to relate to the people on-screen and share a sense of nostalgia at the end.

3. Purina, “Puppyhood”

Purina partnered with Buzzfeed to produce “Puppyhood,” a cute short video about a young adult and his new puppy. It’s not exactly a short film, but it’s not what you’d expect from an ad, either. “Puppyhood” represents the next big step in sponsored content. Most ads are still trying to interrupt or distract you from watching something else. With more than three million shares, Purina and Buzzfeed demonstrated that sponsored content like “Puppyhood” can be the destination itself.

4. GEICO, “Unskippable”

Adweek chose “Unskippable” as the best ad of 2015. GEICO’s viral ad is a perfect example of a commercial designed around the context people will see it in. “Unskippable” was created for the web, meaning that its largest audience would be seeing it on services like YouTube and Hulu. And so the ad begins with a joke about YouTube pre-roll videos. It’s funny, contemporary, and succeeded in getting viewers to watch all the way to the end.

5. Adidas, “Unfollow feat. Leo Messi”

The celebrity athlete commercial has become something of a cliche. Adidas shakes it up by mixing TV news footage, social media, and dynamic sports content, demonstrating what it means to be a celebrity today. It then flips the script when Messi encourages his fans to “unfollow” him in order to make their own dreams come true. Using music from a lesser-known artist (P.O.S. “Stand Up”), “Unfollow” makes it feel like Messi’s own personal anthem. Mixing the mega-popular with the somewhat obscure gives the viral ad a unique tone.

6. “The Collective Project: Robert Downey Jr. Delivers a Real Bionic Arm”

Who says a viral ad can’t be both funny and inspirational? Microsoft Office’s video with The Collective Project mixed an inspirational message, a moving event, and a giant movie star to generate a major crowd-pleaser. Kleenex’s “Unlikely Best Friends” was similarly inspiring, but didn’t generate as many shares. It’s hard to say whether it’s the humor or the movie star that makes The Collective Project’s video so appealing, but the combination was enough to generate more than ten million views on YouTube.

7. Red Nose Day, “Coldplay’s Game of Thrones: The Musical”

A mockumentary following a famous rock band, who are working on a musical about the biggest TV sh0w in the world. Narrated by Liam Neeson. It’s easy to see how “Coldplay’s Game of Thrones: The Musical” tallied 15 million views, even though it’s 12 minutes long. What’s not clear is what the video had to do with the Red Nose Day charity. Rather than creating a typical call to arms video, Red Nose Day gave viewers entertaining content and then invited them to donate if they enjoyed it. It’s a whole new kind of viral ad. Did their strategy pay off? It’s hard to say; we’ll see if they take a similar approach next year.

8. The Ad Council, “Love Has No Labels”

The Ad Council used a giant X-ray to show people how their feelings have been affected by unknown biases. It’s a classic device, brilliantly used. If that great idea wasn’t enough, they joined the live event with a music video format, creating a video that punches through prejudice to hit the audience right in the heart.

As traditional models become less powerful, filmmakers have the opportunity to tailor their content to the stories they want to tell and the spaces they want to tell them in. Sponsored content and viral ads allow for a truer blend of filmmaking and advertising than every before. What were your favorite viral ads of the last year? Have you made any long form product videos or advertisements? Share a link in the comments.

Author: Stephen Heleker

Stephen is a filmmaker and writer living in Los Angeles. He grew up in southwest Idaho and worked as a video producer/director before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA in Directing at UCLA. Twitter: @stephenheleker

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