Visual language for storytelling

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go around, interests & backgrounds of participants

  • video, interest in design skills there
  • librarian, responsible for communication, interested in culturally sensitive design work
  • UI/UX interest, artist
  • effective communication through pictures and colors
  • reaching audiences
  • design for events that encourages diversity
  • design for accessibility
  • improving apps
  • visually illiterate
  • photography
  • synchronizing writing with images
  • arts/activism : education
  • writing experience, using graphics and images to set tone

lessons learned from design action

  • came out of very reactionary early activist experience
  • when we create images, its not about our personal expression or opinions, its about orienting the content to the target audience
  • requires understanding who the target audience is
  • this conversation: helpful tools for understanding who your audience is, and how you can make sure you’re designing for them. especially interested in accessibility and cultural issues.
  • aesthetic question: both what is beautiful, and what is effective and accountable methods for communicating your message.

challenge wrestled with recently:

  • knowing the level of fidelity necessary for communication. have had experiences where the design was shown with the wrong level of fidelity and inappropriate feedback received.
    • showed a website to a friend, got feedback about fonts and images instead of design, when fonts and images were just placeholders
    • using balsamiq to show “sketched up” version of the design
  • real world: you have to work with many different familiarity levels
    • underlying issue: managing expectations and being clear about deliverables and feedbacks
    • design action has a very strict process, written out before the client work starts and communicated clearly over the phone.
    • their process for websites has three main phases
    • intake/information/architecture
    • deliverable: wireframe
    • if this is skipped over, you can end up with a fully built website that doesn’t meet the needs of the client.
    • visual design/layout
    • development
  • logo process:
  • concepts
  • first renderings
  • final details and style guide
  • frequently refer back to explicitly stated goals and information about who the audience is
  • so how does that initial conversation of expectation setting happen?
  • we can have a four hour discussion about one design that we don’t like. design discussions can be very heated/emotional? why? how do we fix this?

i have a different background (app dev/business), but the three phases thing is very similar to what we use. as the analyst, you need to keep asking why until you know for sure what they need.

best practices on the ways you ask those questions?

  • get people to avoid rabbit holes
  • do it in person
  • start with some foreknowledge of their framework
  • get them to re-explain them
  • ask why a lot
  • people speak in terms of design, not requirement
  • reverse engineer them back
  • then bring them forward using design expertise
  • how is the issue you care about currently perceived by the target audience and how would like it to be perceived?
  • brainstorming what narrative already exists
  • what is the narrative that we need to insert

we use a tool from the center for story based strategy. focus is the work that happens before the design phase. one important tool is the “cornerstones,” a chart of

  • goal - what do you want
  • audience - who are you communicating to
  • target - who are you trying to change
  • constituency - who is already on your team
  • the are a few other chart based tools, but they all work in pretty similar ways. were just trying to find out what stories exist and what we want to exist instead.

four graphic principles i was taught:

  • shape
  • size
  • color
  • texture

do you use these and how do you prioritize them? or, what do you use instead?

  • i don’t use those (or at least, i don’t think about it that way)

details of tone are visualized through color and font and texture

conversations about what logos are and are not

communicating tone visually:

  • collect a lot of examples of existing visual language
  • (once you understand what the target audience is, what else are they looking at) what images are they consuming in association with that particular issue
  • make informed recommendations on what visual cues will associate you with what you want while still allowing distinctiveness
  • example: working right now with an old communist newspaper
    • readership and contributors are younger
    • want a new logo that honors their legacy but positions themselves as a reputable, established news source
    • good conversation:
    • members of their team talked me through how they arrived where they arrived
    • who they are trying to write for, who’s writing for them
    • what is the visual language of jacobin, democracy now, other things that their target audience is reading
    • first deliverables will be hand drawn sketches with visual landscape as it exists and points to visual cues that i will be borrowing from

i think it’s interesting, the artful decision between what’s novel and what’s existing

  • grab concepts that already exist and fit yourself into them in an interesting way

sometimes building a website isn’t actually what the organization needs!


  • mostly dictated by early conversations with the client, they might say we need these colors or we want to avoid these colors
  • immigrant or cultural identity communities frequently have significant colors
  • avoiding perpetuating stereotypes through colors
  • story: international womens conference in paris needed a new logo, wanted three faces pictured
  • one woman had a headscarf on
  • but someone int he coalition was not happy about the hijab and asked for it to be removed
  • aware of anti-muslim sentiment in france
  • we refused as a vendor to remove that face
  • gave the contact with the conference the clout to communicate that to the rest of the organizers

a good conversation to have: what are the lines that you will not cross as a designer, what are your core values, design ethics? more often comes up when deciding who were going to work with initially

people really hate change. how do you move the needle as a designer and help get people to adopt new ideas?

  • trusting the process and getting buy-in/trust in the process
  • spend a lot of extra time upfront getting buy-in/info on why they want a change from all of the stakeholders
  • continuous reminders/points to the reasons for the changes.

books/website/periodical recommendations: