2 min Read
October 4, 2011

Once upon a Design: Introducing Visual Storytelling

Rebecca Hume

Let me tell you a story. No, better. Let me show you one.

Storytelling as a technique has been getting a lot of buzz in the nonprofit world. And with good reason. As Aesop discovered way back in ancient times, a well-spun tale can be an indispensable communication tool. It sends your listeners on a journey, allowing them to develop a personal connection with the issue and, as a result, sticks with them in a way that simply asserting the moral outright never could.

Now, substitute “donors” for “listeners” and “mission” for “moral” and you can see just how handy stories can be for cause-based organizations.

When crafting effective stories for nonprofits, we’ve found the best tales are told not just with evocative language but through smart visual design. So, this month, Big Duck is introducing an area of work we’re calling visual storytelling.

What, exactly, is a visual story? Well, it can be a lot of things. Annual reports, infographics, video, PowerPoint presentations–even physical spaces–can become visual stories. The key is that, unlike the illustrations in a book of fairytales that depict a crucial moment or two, visual stories are driven from beginning to end by their imagery. The drama is woven right into the design, resulting in a story that feels that much more real and affecting.

Think of it as the difference between reading the Biblical account of creation and gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Both share a common narrative, but the painting brings it to life with a power that takes your breath away.

Not that it takes a Michelangelo to create a good visual story. Here are a few of the elements we make sure to consider when we set out to spin our visual yarns:

  • Character: Stories are only compelling when we care about the individuals in them. Since most nonprofits are, at heart, about helping people, figure out who those people are and how to keep the focus on them.
  • Plot: Your story needs to follow some kind of progression, with a defined conflict as well as a resolution. Think about what kind of change you’re making in the world and what examples illustrate that on a specific, human level.
  • Genre: Once you’ve got the outline of your story, give some thought to the best way to show it. After all, effective visual storytelling relies on the medium matching the message. Is it about a crisis requiring an urgent response? The immediacy of video may be the way to go. A tale of success against the odds? An infographic could be a smart choice.
  • Audience: Always, always remember who your story is for. Make sure it’s not only interesting but also that your audience can see how they fit in–ideally as the ones with the power to bring about more happily-ever-afters.

Our recent project for Masa Israel Journey shows how all these elements can work together. A combination of photography, infographics, and a text-light PowerPoint presentation illustrate how spending time in Israel helps young American Jews connect to their heritage and discover their leadership potential, which ultimately benefits the entire Jewish community.

Have you run across any particularly moving visual stories lately? Let us know in the comments.