When it comes to design, visuals are one of your most powerful tools for communication.
As a designer, you’re expected to strategically use (and oftentimes create) visual content to support a specific message, tell a brand’s story and do so in a way that is both creative and compelling.
Sound like an easy job? Well, not so much. Working effectively with visuals requires a lot of careful consideration. Use too many and you risk overwhelming your audience — use too few, and you risk losing their interest.
Since visual storytelling is such an important part of the design process, how can you ensure that you effectively communicate your client’s (or your own) intended message? And how might this look different when thinking about the different disciplines in design? An illustrator, for example, might have a different set of challenges when it comes to visual storytelling than a web designer.
We decided to ask four designers of different design specialties to explain how they use visuals to communicate a message and tell a story. If you’re currently lacking in the inspiration department, we hope these designers help bring your creativity back to life with their unique approaches and techniques. Let’s jump in!
Audrey Elise is an independent brand designer helping companies define and create their visual identities through strategy and design. As a brand designer, Audrey has to think about how certain visual elements will affect the perception of a brand and which kind of visuals will best embody their story:
Audrey Elise — San Francisco, California
As a brand designer, I combine color, type, hierarchy, graphics, and logos to tell a brand’s story.
Almost all graphic designers are familiar with color psychology. All colors have different perceived moods and personalities — Pink , for example,s often viewed as feminine and delicate, while Navy is more traditional and formal.
The same psychology can be applied to typefaces. More blocky, industrial type can convey a vintage or retro look. You might see them in coffee shops or for that outdoorsy Pacific Northwest photographer who also owns a beard oil company.
Hierarchy and supporting graphics also come into play. If you want a brand to appear bold, then make the type large. Have it take up the page, maybe even run off the side. If you want the brand to appear more delicate, then make the type small with plenty of white space.
The style of a brand’s logo also plays a huge role in how a brand is perceived. Maybe the photographer’s beard oil company has a logo with an etched style to further communicate that the product is premium and handmade.
The real beauty is in mixing and matching these elements in a unique way to tell a brand’s story. None of these are hard and fast rules. It’s all about perception and what feels appropriate for the brand. Brand design, at its core, is storytelling. When working with all of these elements, I use what feels right for the brand’s story.
Janu Flores leads the Communications and Marketing Design team at Samsara—an IoT platform for connected operations. Designing a website comes with a unique set of challenges as the ultimate goal is to convert visitors into customers or users. Janu explains how a website’s visuals and structure work together to support a narrative and engage visitors:
Janu Flores — San Francisco, California
When designing a website, I try to think about what a viewer will take away with as little reading as possible. More often than not, the right combination of imagery paired with a few words or numbers will do more heavy lifting than huge chunks of copy.
That, along with establishing a visual rhythm—and then selectively breaking that rhythm—keeps a viewer engaged. Adding little visual flourishes, even something as simple as a line that overlaps somewhere unexpected can draw a viewer’s eye. Using variations in type to emphasize a specific word or phrase can make a huge difference as far as making content more skimmable. There are tons of little visual tricks that can be used—the key is using them judiciously. With each element ask yourself, “Is this is adding clarity or noise?”
As with any other form of visual storytelling, it’s important to be a great editor. Don’t be afraid to try things and experiment but more importantly, don’t be afraid to cut out things. Much like how movies have deleted scenes, you might have to cut elements of your design to support your overall narrative.
Bee Grandinetti is a Brazilian motion designer currently freelancing in London. With a quick glance at her portfolio, you’ll notice Bee’s work tends to burst with color and energy. Bee explains that in animation, every movement serves a purpose:
Bee Grandinetti — London, United Kingdom
When it comes to animation, visuals (and the lack thereof) are extremely important to create meaning, lead the eye to the right places, and set a rhythm. When visuals are moving, it’s a whole different story — the art of motion graphics requires great attention to detail and sensibility in order to create the right hierarchy and flow in a moving composition.
I always try to put the story and what needs to be communicated first. What is the feeling that I need to convey with a certain piece of animation? Based on this, I’ll either create very minimal scenes, intimate close-ups on characters, and maybe even very slow scenes. For a completely opposite effect, I’ll play with visually intense rapid cuts, with a profusion of colours and elements.
As an illustrator, Ka Lee draws upon his own story and experiences to inspire his work. Ka explains how his cultural upbringing plays a role in how he illustrates and why diversifying his characters help communicate his values.
Ka Lee — Madison, Wisconsin
As a Hmong illustrator, it’s essential that my work reflects my diverse background and experiences as a minority. For me, being able to communicate that I’m Hmong and that I acknowledge cultural differences in my community helps inspire a ton of the work that I make.
In an effort to highlight these cultural differences and reach out to a larger audience of people, I intentionally diversity my character illustrations by depicting them in all kinds of shapes and sizes and overflowing them with personality.
My work is definitely a small interpretation of everything I want to see more of; I’ve seen a ton of other talented artists who’ve helped push this change into the tech space and that’s what makes me resonate with certain brands that tell a story with their illustrations.
I’m still learning and growing as an illustrator and challenging myself every day to make more work that challenges the norm. Of course, my work is in no way political or about my stance on certain social issues but to show that diversity helps enrich our community. Especially with art.
Now that you’ve learned about some different techniques for visual communication, try experimenting with visuals in your own craft to see what kind of message they evoke and what effect they have on your audience. Remember, there is no right way to tell a story, but many ways you can combine and use visuals to get a point across. At the end of the day, see what feels right to you and lean on your design community for helpful feedback!
Renee Fleck is the Content Manager at Dribbble, an online community where designers share their work, grow, and get hired. In addition to writing and managing content for Dribbble’s blog, Renee occasionally freelances in design and illustration. Keep up with her latest work on Dribbble.