Visual storytelling

Visuals help us tell better stories. Visuals are more than just aesthetic. Visuals are communication.

How do visuals help us tell better stories? What are some of their critical characteristics that make them powerful communication tools?

Visuals quickly catch audience attention.
Pages of text can be easily ignored. Visuals attract audiences. Eyetracking research by Poynter has shown that news stories with visuals more quickly catch audiences’ attention. Larger photos are more quickly noticed, as are color photos over black and white photos. The below photo quickly catches audiences attention and makes them want to learn more about 3-D printed prosthetics.

3dhand

Faith Lennox, 7, adjusts her newly 3-D printed hand at the Build it Workspace in Los Alamitos, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

Visuals are a universal language.
Because photography is a visual information source, we do not face a language barrier in interpreting the news, as we do with written or spoken news. Certainly there can be cultural differences in understanding and interpreting a photograph. But you do not need to be able to read or speak a different language to understand the basic premise of a photograph and that this story from Brazil is likely about litter, pollution or the environment.

A bottle and wood floats with other trash in Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Leo Correa/AP Photo)

A bottle and wood floats with other trash in Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Leo Correa/AP Photo)

Visuals are processed quickly.
Research has shown that the human brain can process images 60 times faster than words. An audience can look at the below photo and very quickly understand that this story is likely about freezing temperatures in Chicago.

Charles Martinez looks over the partially frozen Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Charles Martinez looks over the partially frozen Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Visuals can document.
News is often about research, process, policy, politics, etc. Visuals can document and provide “proof” and a “historical record” of these occurrences. The photo below provides historical record and documentation of President Obama signing healthcare legislation.

President Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010. (Pete Souza/White House Press Photographer)

President Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010. (Pete Souza/White House Press Photographer)

Visuals can inform.
Remembering that visuals are more than just aesthetic, or decoration, visuals can provide information. Weather maps like this one quickly give audiences great amounts of information. Visually this map shows audiences that it will be warmer in the south and cooler in the north.

Weather maps like this one quickly give audiences great amounts of information (www.weather.com)

Weather maps like this one quickly give audiences great amounts of information (www.weather.com)

Visuals can compare.
Visuals can compare, either in a before or after sense or by presenting relative comparisons. For example, you might know that the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. But you can get a real sense of just how tall it is when you can visually compare it to other recognized skyscrapers. This chart visually compares and shows audiences that the Burj Khalifa is two times as tall as the Willis Tower in Chicago.

compare

This chart visually compares and shows audiences that the Burj Khalifa is nearly two times as tall as the Willis Tower in Chicago. (http://skyscrapersource.com)

Visuals provide evidence.
They can show and not just tell, which can be critical for many types of reporting. Stories with visuals can provide evidence that can be seen with one’s own eyes. And some things – like a fish that can eat food 10 times its size – you want to be able to see.

Because food is so scarce thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface, the black swallower’s highly elastic stomach and widely hinged jaws allow it to eat prey 10 times its own weight. (R. Mickens/ American Museum of Natural History)

Because food is so scarce thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface, the black swallower’s highly elastic stomach and widely hinged jaws allow it to eat prey 10 times its own weight. (R. Mickens/American Museum of Natural History)

Visuals create experience.
Visuals create experience by allowing us to interact with them. Digital technologies allow audiences to experience information in a way that isn’t possible in print; in a digital environment, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience. We intellectually know how vast the universe is. But it can still be hard to fully understand the vastness of space. The below image is a still from a brilliant interactive experience, If the Moon Were Only One Pixel, that allows audiences to immerse themselves in the content, which leads to real understanding.

 Digital technologies allow audiences to experience information in a way that isn’t possible in print; in a digital environment, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience. (Josh Worth)


Digital technologies allow audiences to experience information in a way that isn’t possible in print; in a digital environment, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience. (Josh Worth)

Visuals can persuade.
Consider the three facets of persuasion according to Aristotle: facts, emotion, and source. Visuals at the intersection of these three facets can be highly effective tools of persuasion. The below photo combines facts (disappearing ice) + emotion (polar bears are losing their habitat and face extinction) + source (credible news source) to create effective visual persuasion that can make us think and act.

Polar bears will not survive without action to tackle climate change and save their rapidly disappearing Arctic habitat, conservationists have warned. (The Telegraph)

Polar bears will not survive without action to tackle climate change and save their rapidly disappearing Arctic habitat, conservationists have warned. (The Telegraph)

Visuals have strong emotional impact.
Scholarly research has shown that photographs are emotionally powerful. Photos can make us feel. Sorrow. Joy. Disgust. Pain. Empathy. This image is just one of the many images captured in the wake of the PB oil spill that documented the oil covered animals and the effect of the spill on the wildlife. It’s nearly impossible to look at this and not feel something. Sorrow. Disgust. Empathy for all of the people and animals killed and injured in that accident.

In the wake of the BP Gulf Oil Spill, a heavily oiled pelican flounders on the beach at East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, La. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

In the wake of the BP Gulf Oil Spill, a heavily oiled pelican flounders on the beach at East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, La. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Visuals can shock.
Visuals can shock and disturb (both for good and for bad). Nora Ephron (1978) wrote, “That they disturb readers is exactly as it should be: that’s why photojournalism is often more powerful than written journalism.” Images like the one below can produce powerful reactions in viewers. As such, members of the media should show particular ethical concern when taking, selecting, and using shocking images.

Hungry dogs fed on a corpse at the edge of receding floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News)

Hungry dogs fed on a corpse at the edge of receding floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News)

Visuals can also mislead, manipulate, lie.
There are a number of ways that images can mislead, manipulate, and lie. Images can be staged. Photo aesthetics—such as lighting, angle, and shot—can change the meaning of a scene. Images can also be cropped or captioned in such a way as to mislead audiences. And images can be digitally altered to mislead, misrepresent, or lie.

In 1982 National Geographic infamously altered a photograph of the Pyramids of Giza so that the photo would fit a vertical rather than horizontal format.

In 1982 National Geographic infamously altered a photograph of the Pyramids of Giza so that the photo would fit a vertical rather than horizontal format.

Visuals are remembered.
Research has shown that images can be remembered for a longer period of time than words. And they can be remembered in more detail. This is, in part, what contributes to photos becoming iconic. This image of Aldrin on the moon with the American flag is highly iconic. It’s a visual symbol of scientific triumph in putting a person on the moon. The image is part of our shared, visual collective memory. So even those of us who weren’t alive for the lunar landing recognize, identify and in a sense “remember this photo.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during the Apollo 11 mission on the lunar surface. (Neil Armstrong/NASA)

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during the Apollo 11 mission on the lunar surface. (Neil Armstrong/NASA)

Visuals are more than just aesthetic. Visuals are communication. Visuals help us tell better stories.


Header image courtesy The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthpicturegalleries/4980120/Polar-bears-will-not-survive-without-action-to-tackle-climate-change.html

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6 responses to “Visual storytelling

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