Visual Storytelling

a magazine spread with large hands holding insects and plants. A young girl stands in a stream looking into her net

A photograph of La, catching fish and frogs, dominates the page.

Editorial design is a cognitive dance of headlines, images, pullquotes, captions and, often, significant amounts of text. Taking the raw ingredients, visual and textual, and bringing them together in a visually rich way is one of the joys of design — at least for me.

The two page spread above began an article set in Laos about improving the nutrition of villagers. How to convey learning to forage for protein-rich food? The opening spread is dominated by a photograph of La—a student—fishing in a stream. The photograph is diagonally framed by two hands, one holding a cricket and the other wild plants that provide visual torc as well as information to the spread. The bottom of the page is anchored by a smaller photograph of a classroom. Altering the visual scale of images allows the eye to navigate the page.

Voices from Syria

The story started as a series of compelling interviews with Syrians who had chosen to remain in Syria. Their accounts delivered a visceral impression of what it was like to live with a daily threat of violence. The assembled photographs, however, were mostly straightforward portraits framing the subjects at the similar scale. They could have accompanied any article. Each interview was a similar length. The article needed some form of visual contrast.

The opening pages begin with Reverend Ibrahim Nsier’s account of living in Aleppo. The most visually arresting of the photographs, he stands in front of the bombed out building where his church formerly met for worship. Included also, was a map of Syria showing where each the stories come from.

Protrait of a man standing in front of rubble.

Varying the size of the photographs to increase visual contrast while taking account of the copy and using pull quotes to form a point/counterpoint to add energy and contrast that, hopefully, drew readers in the interviews.

A page spread with portraits of people in varying sizes

Varying the scale

An article detailing the connection between help given to French and German rural communities struggling to rebuild after World War II and their own contemporary efforts to aid Syrians affected by the current violent crisis seemed too large a story for the meagre four pages available.

A photograph of first spread which shows a photograph and a portrait of an elderly man

A large image featuring a hand holding photograph taken in the early 1950s of American volunteers, during post-war European reconstruction, walking along the same street depicted in the background the current photograph and a portrait of one of the boyhood recipients of the help, now in his eighties, dominate the first spread.

A two page spread with four photographs, three forming a v pointing to the fourth.

The second page is much more visually dense with photographs of villagers who received help forming a “V” which points to the long horizontal photograph of a container being loaded with supplies destined for Syria refugees displaced in the Middle East. Two WWII recipients look on while the loading is done by younger members of the community.

Words and images have ample potential for storytelling. Images depict what happened and also communicate on a emotional level. Words can filter out the extraneous details, and allow for precision in the sweep of what is reported. When words and pictures come together, a third element becomes important — the visual orchestration of the information. We see the images and read the text for more details. We read the text and look to the images to illuminate the points or add detail. How they are brought together can help the story or hinder it. When various chunks of information are presented at the same visual size and value, we don’t know where to start. Visual interest like good prose, makes information easier to digest. It relates a meaning greater than the sum of the parts.


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