A 3-Phase Process for Becoming a Visual Storyteller

by Hunter Liptrap   Last Updated Last Updated on Sep 26, 2014
Hunter Liptrap

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We know that humans think in pictures. We know that images tell stories. We know that images evoke emotions that words cannot. We know we want to create stories with visuals. But, what you may not know is how to create those meaningful visuals.

Visual storytelling, the right way, can set you apart from the white noise that is marketing in the business world today. Below are the phases that will identify the process of creating powerful, visual stories and make you an effective visual storyteller.

Phase 1 - Learn

Customer Research

As a visual storyteller, you have to get your hands dirty and do some work. Quora is an excellent resource for research and information. There, users continually add and update questions and answers to a wide variety of topics and interests. Chances are, what you are looking for can be found here if you have a starting point and look hard enough.

Or, if you can't find what your looking for, or just can't find it, you can ask. Asking a question is pretty straightforward in Quora. Here's an example of some questions and answers in the tool:

ask quoraAbove is a screenshot of my personalized Question and Answer feed on Quora. If you want to ask a question, there is a nice blue button on the top right of the screen that reads, "Add Question." Once pressed, a dialog box will open, like this one below.

asking quoraThis is where you type in your question. You can even add it anonymously by clicking the check box to indicate that preference. From here, it will walk you through a few more steps. It will show you similar questions that may have the same title as the one you are asking, and then it will ask you the categories your question belongs to.

Identify Opportunities

Don't just make visual content for the sake of visual content. Find out what your audience is craving. Quora is a great tool for in-depth research in finding out what your audience actually wants, but there are other resources you can use.

Twitter is a big one, because of how easy it is to interact with people and brands alike. The subjects of any questions or complaints that are directed to you or your competitors are pure gold. Those are the topics that people actually care about. They took the time out of their day to seek engagement with your brand, or a competitor's, so that you can help them.

In a similar fashion, you can use Google+ or other review websites to discover the real issues are that people are experiencing that you have the power to correct.

Focus on the burning questions that people want answered.

Test Propositions

Run ideas by others. Don't keep them to yourself and expect it to be a hit. Get feedback from your peers as well as others whom your idea is targeted towards to make sure they grasp what you're going for. "Begin with the end in mind" in the now immortal words of Pro Football Hall of Famer, Aeneas Williams.

What does "Begin with the end in mind" mean exactly? Here's author Steven Covey's take on the idea:

"Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen." - Stephen Covey

Research

At some point, in order for your visual story to take off, it should be backed by some sort of data. An unfortunate truth. The bottom line here is that you want to make sure there is concrete evidence that what your doing will have a payoff. Your data could simply be the fact that some girl on YouTube has 7,000 subscribers interested in her content — so we know the topics she presents have value to someone. To some extent, your data may shift your project from one medium to another, because it may reveal that your audience is attracted to data in a different way than you had originally intended.

Despite all this, it is important to remember that you are telling a story, one that should inspire, one that just so happens to be backed by data. Not the other way around. Optimization doesn't lead your brand, your story does — after all you want to be a visual storyteller, not an accountant.

Phase 2 - Test

Testing is obviously a huge part of visual storytelling techniques. Creating a story that resonates is rarely a one-shot project. Tweaks are always required, sometimes even complete reworks. Granted, at this point, you want to avoid complete reworks, that's that purpose of Phase 1 — to identify when and where you need to change direction. A few general rules of thumb here include:

Small batches over Big Design - Take baby steps in updating your design. Try not to take a big leap and complete it all at once. By doing a lot all at once, you are increasing the chances of losing the direction you intend to be going.

Co-Design over Table Tennis - Collaboration my friends, collaboration. The power of working together on a project is real. It's way more efficient than bouncing ideas off each other every now and then and losing what was meant in translation — like that game we used to play, "telephone."

Team over Creatives - A good idea can come from anyone. It doesn't have to be from someone you label as a "creative."

Analysis

This where your visual storytelling project begins to become expensive. Time is more crucial and mistakes will take more to correct. Make sure you know the medium and the dimensions and characters that are needed before you go any further.

Creative Brief

As a visual storyteller, you need to own this and know it inside and out. The brief is the where the concept and layout of the story will come together. It will provide direction from here on out. Now, if you have a brilliant idea that changes everything after this is created the first time, do not hesitate to revise it and start over. The best mother's day commercial of all time by American Greetings' Cardstore.com had to revise their brief after a realization one of their team members had after starting on their project and came up with this, "The World's Toughest Job."

Here is an example of a brief that contains 8 topics that you need to ask and answer in order to build a successful visual story:

  1. Background
  2. Audience
  3. Objective
  4. Single Message / Insight - This is where the company that created The World's Toughest Job video had their revelation.
  5. Creative Elements / Must - Haves
  6. Existing Materials
  7. Deliverables
  8. Timeline

Make sure that what you are creating is providing real value and not marketing fluff. The goal is to create, build trust and inspire over profit.

Wireframe

You can now begin to mock-up the visual representation of your project. A wireframe is a low-cost visual guide, a skeleton of the visual you will be creating. It's also a quick and easy way to gain insight into the visual design at an early stage. Here's an example of a super basic wireframe for a website:

wireframe

There are varying degrees of wireframe detail. You can sketch it out (which I actually prefer to do), mock it up online (as pictured above) or create a detailed storyboard with sketches.

To check out how others approach wireframing, there's always Tumblr.

Copywriting Precision

The less space you have, the less copy you should use. If your design is going to be limited by dimension, you certainly want to keep that in mind. It may take you more time, but as Blaise Pascal once said in French, "Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte," which you may recognize as:

"I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."

Little changes in your messaging at this point can be very time consuming. You will want to get as much copy ironed out as you can in the brief.

Phase 3 - Improvement

Keep in mind that there is never really a "done" point in this process. Even when the project is final, you can always repurpose the visual elements you have created for more engagement in the future.

Mood boards

A mood board is an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept. Before you actually begin to create the final design, it is important to show the general direction that you are shooting for. More specifically, a mood board will get everyone on the same page in terms of feel, color palette, and design direction.

If you are looking for a place to find a direction or style turn to Pinterest. My favorite place to look is the work done by Mark Kulakoff showcased on his board, this is an example of his work for Keebler 'Flatbread Crisps' — what he describes as a "journey through a fairy tale pop-up book that showcases the unique flavors of the flatbread crisps."

Combine Copy and Design

Now is the time you've finally been waiting for — the great unveil of something magical that will make visual storytelling history... almost. Use your wireframe and mood board for reference in creating the final design and add in your text.

Leave and Come Back

Perhaps the most important part of this process is often overlooked. Sometimes you are too deep into the process to notice that there is a period out of place or an image off by a pixel. It happens. The best way to catch these mistakes is to let your work sit for a while and come back with fresh eyes.

Sometimes, even multiple pairs of fresh eyes are needed. Actually, most of the time more than one pair of fresh eyes are required.

Release and Re-Use

Now is the time you've finally been waiting for — for real this time. In addition to one complete project, you have also created a bunch of pieces and parts that can be used in the future for other projects. No need to recreate each piece again.

Did you just create a video? Well then, you have vector graphics, scripts, styleframes and animations.

Did you just create an e-Book? Well then, you have a thesis, evidence, authors and graphics.

Closing Thoughts

The main thing that I want to leave you with is that this process takes time. Time is a valuable resource, but it allows you to imagine and perfect your visual story. The worst thing you can do to limit creativity is to slap a short deadline on a project.

"A good infographic can take 4 weeks." - Leslie Bradshaw

Notice how she didn't even say "amazing," she said "good." That's just something to keep in mind when you embark on a mission to change the world with a visual story.

Photo Credit: Story Telling

Author
Hunter Liptrap

Hunter Liptrap

Creative Director at Modgility
Hunter is Certified Inbound Marketing, Growth Driven Design, and HubSpot Design. He has a passion for the conversion rate optimization process. With 3 years of experience he has designed and built multiple websites across various industries.

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