Visual storytelling. You may have heard this term quite frequently, but you may not know exactly what it is. Well, as Andrew Losowsky writes, visual storytelling “is a combination of emotional reactions and narrative information.” The best visual stories can come from anywhere, whether it is designed, filmed, photographed, or even animated for a video game.
The goal for any work of art to be considered a successful piece of visual storytelling is that it needs to move you in some visceral way (Jim Colton). Many people may get moved by different types of images for different reasons, but I wanted to present you with ten works of art that I find to be effective pieces of visual storytelling.
1 – PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games logo
For this image, I am not referring to the logo with the three swooshes at the bottom (which is the general Paralympic Games logo), but rather the star-shaped logo at the top, which is the logo specifically for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games. This is a universal logo, as the Olympics overall have always represented the unification of nations competing under one roof. The Paralympic Games take it one step further and, even though less athletes and countries participate in these games, eliminate all discrimination by allowing those with disabilities to demonstrate their perseverance.
The Paralympic Games in PyeongChang 2018 showed the highest number of athletes (567) and the highest number of countries participating (49), including North Korea, who unified with South Korea to participate in the games.
The logo is very touching because it represents two humans holding hands, standing for unification, togetherness, and everything the Olympics stands for. The logo adds a sense of relevancy towards the event as it aligns with the values of not only those participating in the event, but those spectating and wishing to support the event (Jade Lien).
2 – Scary Wrestling Moment
Before giving any backstory at all into this image, just take a look at it. What do you see? There’s a menacing figure on top of a steel cage, a broken cell ceiling and a bunch of referees coming to someone’s aid. To those not familiar with the WWE, this is a prime example of visual storytelling because of how real the moment feels and its ability to elicit an emotional response from you. You can tell that the man laying down in the ring fell a significant distance because of how well composed this image is. Mike Davis explains that an image is successfully three-dimensional because “things that are in the foreground connect to things in the background in…triangulated ways” (Gitner, 18). This image is a good example of that because you can place a point at the top of the Undertaker’s (man standing on top of the cage) head, draw a line to the left-most referee, draw another line to the toes of the man receiving the attention, and a line back up to the head of the Undertaker.
This photograph also being a high angle shot provides a feeling of tragedy and fear towards the man who is receiving the attention, while also making the Undertaker on top of the cage look even more menacing.
3 – Yoshi’s Island
This is a still from a video game released 25 years ago, called Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. This is one of my favorite games I’ve played to date and I find this still from the opening cutscene to be very personal. There is a baby sitting all by himself in the middle of an island filled with Yoshi’s. Eight Yoshi’s surround the baby in curiosity.
Because this is a video game, this image is part of a series of interactive images that present a linear story. Bo Bergstrom mentions that linear storytelling takes the player “from one [area] to the next in a direct and uncomplicated way…making it difficult to get lost” (24-25). While that is true for this game, that does not mean that this image cannot be interpreted in many ways. There are plenty of conclusions and observations someone can make about this image. For example, this image might make someone feel calm and peaceful when in reality there is something terrible going on at this point in the game.
4 – Calvin and Hobbes
While not an image or a photograph, a comic strip can also provide some strong examples of visual storytelling. I was a huge fan of the Calvin and Hobbes comics, and anyone who sees this drawing, whether or not they have read the comics, should feel a wave of nostalgia as they harken back to the days where they would go outside and have adventures with their stuffed animals. Bergstrom says it best: “We feel a part of the action when we can relate it to our personal experiences” (14). Therefore, even though we are not in this drawing, we are experiencing the same sort of childish fun that Calvin and Hobbes are experiencing just by looking at them have a good time. When an image, or a drawing for that matter, can have that effect on you, that is a great example of visual storytelling.
5 – Wall-E
This is a still from the movie Wall-E. It is a very simple still with an extremely shallow depth of field, allowing us to only see Wall-E and the cockroach in the foreground, and nothing in the background. Wall-E’s eyes are wide and slanted downward, and considering he is looking at the roach, he is either feeling sad or concerned for it. This image can give us clues as to what’s going on without having to know what happens in the film. First off, we can see that Wall-E is full of rust, which means that he has not been used or cleaned in quite a while. Next is simply the fact that he is paying this much attention to a cockroach. This must mean that there is not many other living things on this planet to interact with besides a cockroach. We can also take the concerned look on Wall-E’s face and predict that he must’ve accidentally hurt the roach in some way, but because of our common knowledge that roaches do not die, we can infer that this roach put himself back together which is how we land on this still.
This is an example of non-dramatic visual storytelling. As Bergstrom states, “[non-dramatic storytelling] is created from different perspectives, so the audience is required to make its own assessments and complete the picture itself” (22). While the film as a whole can be considered the opposite, this still on its own is so simple that it leaves the audience coming up with stories about these characters and their environment.
6 – Alan Walker – Diamond Heart (Music Video)
This still is both personal to me and has universal meaning as a piece of visual storytelling. For me, I am a huge fan of Alan Walker and his music, but I may be an even bigger fan of his music videos because they are so well directed and edited. They send such positive messages to the world and are so beautifully shot that I could have chosen almost any still from any of his music videos to use as an example.
Universally, however, this shot uses many different technical aspects in order to enhance the image and to give it a much deeper meaning. This shot uses lighting and silhouettes to achieve the desired look. The silhouette is effective in this shot because it is not “centered on one person, but is representative of the entire [community] and what they are experiencing” (Gitner, 15). This is actually a shot of two different communities (one in black robes and one in white robes) unifying over the drones they have found. The light from outside the cave appearing soft and welcoming while also darkening each figure symbolizes the unification and growth of these communities, which is exactly the type of message Alan Walker tries to bring with his music and videos.
7 – 1917 Movie Poster
This is a beautifully designed poster for one of my new favorite films, 1917. Right away, you can tell that this film is going to feature these two characters, Lance Corporal Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake. The framing inside the letters gives off that interpretation because even though there may be other soldiers surrounding these two, it is only these two that made the “cut” inside the numbers. This correlates with Jade Lien’s idea of character achetypes being one of the four main assets of a good visual storytelling piece: “stories that leave an impression feature a memorable character(s) readers or viewers can identify with.” The plan for this film was to make it look like it was all done in one take, thus making the audience experience the journey in real time with both Lance Corporals, without any jumps in time to skip boring patches of walking or driving. This choice of cinematography forces the audience to identify with the characters, just as this poster forces us to follow these two characters.
8 – OnePlus homepage
You may think that the banner of the homepage for a cellphone company may be the last place you think you’d find a piece of visual storytelling, but OnePlus’s choice of words on their heading and description are deliberately chosen to make the viewer think twice before leaving the site. As soon as I saw this banner, I immediately thought of the “Robot on Mars” banner from Slack on Nichole DeMeré’s blog, The Power of Visual Storytelling: 15 Stunning Examples to Inspire You.
While not as out-of-this-world as Slack’s homepage, OnePlus’s wordplay is smart. Their banner features the phrase “Lead With Speed,” as if trying to tell you that the OnePlus 8 is the fastest phone on the market. Directly under that, though, OnePlus writes that you can get $100 off your “Interstellar Glow Version” OnePlus 8 phone. Even though that “Interstellar Glow Version” is just a different color scheme for the phone, that word choice makes it seem like that version of the phone is somehow special, or a limited edition, and combining that with a $100 price cut is a smart incentive to get potential customers thinking about buying a OnePlus phone.
9 – Martin Garrix – In The Name Of Love (Music Video)
Martin Garrix is another artist who I am a huge fan of. While his music videos may not be as cinematic and story-driven as Alan Walker’s, I do find Garrix’s to be quite entertaining and to have some insane set design that can tell great visual stories. This still from one of Garrix’s music videos is a great example of understanding human emotion and controlling the shot’s composition. Seth Gitner says that “a true storyteller must think about what is in front of the camera and, possibly even more importantly, why it is there” (10).
While this shot is staged (since it is a part of a music video), it is still worth asking why it is composed the way it is in order to get a better understanding of the story. Why is there a girl wearing a dress standing on a diving board? Why is there a second diving board? Why is she looking towards the water near that second diving board? Why is she outside near water when it is about to storm? The director wants us to focus on the girl, who is the one vibrancy in a composition filled with dull colors and scenery.
Based on the coloring of the image as well as the questions we have just asked ourselves, we can infer that the girl is outside because she may be mourning the loss of her lover who drowned in the pool after falling off the diving board. There is no way to tell if this is the true story, but the appearance of storms, the lack of light, and the lack of a partner on the other diving board lead us to these conclusions.
10 – Lunch Atop A Skyscraper
Last but not least, this example may be the only true photograph out of this entire collection. It is a very iconic photograph that even I have framed in my house. It is a simple picture of 11 men sharing lunch on top of a construction beam which is suspended multiple hundreds of feet above the ground. There are many questions that can be asked. Who are these men? Why are they sitting dangerously high above Rockefeller Center? How did they get up there safely? What are they eating?
One of the reasons this image works so well is that all of the construction workers and the beam they are sitting on are well in focus and contrast sharply against the blurry and bright New York City background. This is an example of controlling the background in order to capture the true wonder of this image (Gitner, 24). If the background were just as in focus as the workers, then there is a chance the workers would have gotten lost within all of the buildings and the true mangitude of their height above the ground may not have appeared nearly as significant or magical.
Another reason this image tells a very good visual story is due to how authentic it is. As Lien states, authenticity in “visual storytelling needs to capture those slice-of-life moments that help the audience connect with the meaning behind the picture.” These workers are not anybody famous and have no story behind them, but it moves us because we relate to the emotions and likely struggles that these workers are going through, albeit not hundreds of feet above in the air.
We covered a wide variety of media, from photographs, to logos, to game clips, to video stills, to even drawings. No matter the media and no matter the design, there is always a story to be told, and if the image can evoke an emotional response and/or provide a possibility of a story, then the image is a successful piece of visual storytelling. There are hundreds of thousands of other pictures and media that are as good examples of visual storytelling as these ten were, but I wanted to highlight the pieces that moved me the most when I first saw them. And even though anybody can take a picture in today’s society, being able to take photos or videos that tell stories visually, that move people towards an emotional response, is a skill that must be practiced and learned (Gitner, 2).
Bergstrom, Bo. Essentials of Visual Communication. Laurence King, 1 Jan, 2008. https://learn-us-east-1-prod-fleet01-xythos.s3.amazonaws.com/5df1cdd432f98/3073411?response-cache-control=private%2C%20max-age%3D21600&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%2A%3DUTF-8%27%27essentials%2520of%2520visual%2520communication.pdf&response-content-type=application%2Fpdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Date=20200830T030000Z&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Expires=21600&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAZH6WM4PL5SJBSTP6%2F20200830%2Fus-east-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Signature=436d11c46017c63f4d368bb7022c8d531a2453f83bf937d08b61e4225724a44f
DeMeré, Nichole Elizabeth. “The Power of Visual Storytelling: 15 Stunning Examples to Inspire You.” Hubspot, 11 May, 2016. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/visual-storytelling-examples
Gitner, Seth. Multimedia Storytelling for Digital Communicators in a Multiplatform World. Routledge, 21 Jul, 2015. https://learn-us-east-1-prod-fleet01-xythos.s3.amazonaws.com/5df1cdd432f98/3073003?response-cache-control=private%2C%20max-age%3D21600&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%2A%3DUTF-8%27%27In%2520What%2520Way%2520do%2520We%2520Think%2520about%2520Storytelling%2520Every%2520Day.pdf&response-content-type=application%2Fpdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Date=20200830T030000Z&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Expires=21600&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAZH6WM4PL5SJBSTP6%2F20200830%2Fus-east-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Signature=fc0e66299588f87b20bdefca950dff9ae43cf866ee4b1bd8a3c7f0ca2e2b09f5
Lien, Jade. “The Four Principles of Visual Storytelling.” Action Graphics, 21 Nov, 2019. https://actiongraphicsnj.com/blog/4-principles-visual-storytelling/
Losowsky, Andrew. Visual Storytelling. gestalten, 7 Sep, 2011. https://learn-us-east-1-prod-fleet01-xythos.s3.amazonaws.com/5df1cdd432f98/3073410?response-cache-control=private%2C%20max-age%3D21600&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%2A%3DUTF-8%27%27Visual%2520Storytelling.pdf&response-content-type=application%2Fpdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Date=20200830T030000Z&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Expires=21600&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAZH6WM4PL5SJBSTP6%2F20200830%2Fus-east-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Signature=3ee8c40ec5cb5d38f43c897969c4c3e82d4a34305e2361057694926d0efd9f46
“PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics to be the biggest yet.” Paralympic, 8 Mar, 2018. https://www.paralympic.org/news/pyeongchang-2018-paralympics-be-biggest-yet