10 visual storytelling tips from top agencies

In the design industry, storytelling doesn't mean reading a book; it has a wider meaning connected with communicating the story behind a product, company or brand.

As Margaret Nolan, creative director at Denomination, puts it: “Storytelling is about capturing what is credible and interesting about your brand and communicating it to the consumer. It can be done in a variety of ways: with words, pictures, the brand name itself, or even product design.

Denomination's label design for Squealing Pig alters the words in children's rhyme The Three Little Pigs

Denomination's label design for Squealing Pig alters the words in children's rhyme The Three Little Pigs

“A few words can create a vivid picture of your brand,” she continues. “I recently saw some egg packaging that just had a single line of type: ‘Laid by Matilda, Henrietta Biscuit and Pecky.’ It said everything about the brand: small and boutique; an egg producer that knows its product intimately; and someone who loves their hens.

“In short, storytelling is about letting the consumer know what the essence of your brand is about: what you stand for. And finding these stories is at the heart of all our briefs.”

“We needed to position the brand as a premium boutique offering, with more of an emphasis on winemaking,” says Nolan

“We needed to position the brand as a premium boutique offering, with more of an emphasis on winemaking,” says Nolan

In Denomination's work for Squealing Pig wines, "the client wanted the brand to be positioned differently from the majority of New Zealand labels, which were quite serious and featured mountains or landscapes in their branding," says Nolan. “Our idea was to use the well-known children's rhyme but change key words to link the pig both to winemaking and to New Zealand.”

In this article, we hear from some leading experts in the field on how to improve and finesse your visual storytelling.

01. Dig into the brand’s DNA

Jazzbones Creative used the narrative of ‘Every holiday a Masterpiece’ for Imagine Cruising

Jazzbones Creative used the narrative of ‘Every holiday a Masterpiece’ for Imagine Cruising

What makes for good storytelling from a design perspective? “The most effective campaigns have a clear narrative,” says Nathan Sandhu, founder and creative director of Jazzbones Creative. “And the starting point for that narrative has to be the client’s own DNA – what makes it special and what it offers that is different from its competitors.”

So you need to spend time getting know the clients first. “In the best novels, the characters drive the plot, not the other way round. Without a clear understanding of characters – who they are, where they come from, what motivates them, where they are going – how can you put words into their mouths? Exactly the same principle applies to a business narrative.”

Before developing the story, then, you need to understand the company; what it stands for, what makes it special, and what makes its product unique.

“A small hotelier in Scotland is not the same as a multinational cruise operator; they speak in a different voice and to a different audience,” says Sandhu. “If you don’t put in the leg work getting to know your client and what drives them, you cannot possibly tell their story in an effective and authentic way.”

Jazzbones Creative helped Imagine Cruising carve out a niche in the ultra-competitive cruise holidays sector via its highly distinctive ‘Every holiday a Masterpiece’ narrative. “The aim was to stimulate customers to imagine their own dream holidays,” explains Sandhu.

02. Everyone has a story

So what type of client does storytelling work best for? Every single one of them, believes Kieron Molloy, associate creative director of Conran Design Group

“We tend to find that the 'story' is the key link between most of our clients, irrespective of their discipline,” he says.

“When telling a story, it’s absolutely essential to get to the crux of the issue that needs to be portrayed,” Molloy continues. “So for a FTSE client, understanding what the time-poor investor audience needs to know, and delivering it in a way that is simple and memorable, is critical to their prolonged success. 

"A clear, fuss-free storyline, delivered in a way that makes the narrative distinctive and memorable, is inevitably what drives the best brand building.”

03. Stick to your story

The label designs for London Cru merge vine leaves with maps of the city

The label designs for London Cru merge vine leaves with maps of the city

Once you’ve identified your client’s story, the most important thing you need to do is stick to it, says Kath Tudball, design director at The Partners. “When you’ve figured out an engaging and real story to tell, push it and extend it, but stay true to it,” she stresses, and offers the example of their work for London’s first winery, London Cru.

“In this case, the city was the story,” she explains. “Fine vintages pressed and bottled right here in the big smoke, so London had to be the visual motif. Different varieties of vine leaf were created from the fine line work of the city map, with the iconic silhouette of the river Thames forming the stem.

“An immediate visual marriage of London with wine was created on the label, without needing to see the bottle itself for context. With such a strong visual narrative, anything else would complicate matters, so naturally naming followed the same train of thought.”

The signature range also took on the postcode SW6 as a further local reference, with its placement on the label dictated by the geographical reality of the map. “And the individual wines were named after famous London streets that hint at the grapes themselves, such as Charlotte Street for Chardonnay,” adds Tudball. “Even the typography was inspired by the utilitarian conventions of map design.”

04. Empathise with the audience

When you sit down and read a child a story, you naturally pitch it to that particular child. And you need to think about who’ll be consuming your client’s story in the same way.

“The first thing I do when writing or reviewing any form of storytelling is put myself in the position of the audience,” says Beri Cheetham, executive creative director at The Gate London. “I consider the context in which they are viewing it, and above all, how we want people to think, feel or participate.”

And it’s most important to be realistic. “Always remember that people are extremely unlikely to have the same passion for, or knowledge of, a brand that the client does. They don’t have the benefit of having a strategic planner explain the finer nuances of what they’re watching. 

"They’ve not been waiting all year for a brand to interrupt their precious time to tell them a story. And they’re probably not predisposed to give much of a shit about the message or brand either.”

05. Develop stories within stories

The use of textures helped to tell the story of Amys.com, created by Superrb

The use of textures helped to tell the story of Amys.com, created by Superrb

While it’s important that your client’s story is consistent, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be stories within stories. For example, individual campaign stories can complement the overarching brand narrative.

“We refer to storytelling in a couple of different ways,” says Rory Berry, creative director of Superrb. “The first is at the start of the process. It’s when we’re trying to understand the brand, so that we can figure out how we’re going to tell that story through the website. That’s about getting a grasp on the brand positioning (within the market), its purpose, heritage, values and ethos. 

"It’s how we go about creating an experience for the target audience, going beyond the fundamentals of a product or service."

Amy’s Kitchen is a community-driven family business with people at its core. “An example of how we told this story is through use of texture on Amys.com, says Berry. “Sections are broken up with rips and paint splats. And almost every element used is hand-drawn. The stroke lines, buttons, icons and fonts; everything is custom. There’s not a single straight line in sight.”

“The second way we might use the term storytelling is if we’re trying to convey a specific message. For example on Amys.com, we created a timeline mapping out the brand’s key moments, starting from the day the company began to where it is now. For other clients, it might be about how we represent a particular service offering or convey certain product USPs.”

06. Capture attention

There’s no point in telling a client’s story if no-one is listening. “Remember that everything is skippable or shareable,” warns Beri Cheetham, executive creative director at The Gate London. “So you need to think about how you will make it interesting, provocative or disruptive enough to capture and hold the audience’s attention. 

“How will you make it as relevant as possible by connecting the audience, the brand, the media and the moment? How will you make it participative enough to ensure the message creates meaningful action, and so that it can be measured and improved upon?

“What we make either enriches or pollutes people’s lives,” adds Cheetham. When you think about it in such binary terms, it becomes much easier to judge the work, whether you’re the agency or the client.”

07. Tell internal and external stories

BGN told the story of what workouts were like at boutique gym V1BE

BGN told the story of what workouts were like at boutique gym V1BE

When considering the audience for your client’s story, remember that there may more than just one audience, says Jonny Edge, strategist and copywriter at BGN

“At BGN, we may write two versions of brand stories,” he explains. “For instance, one may be for use internally to onboard staff, giving a factual account of how the brand came to be. And the other may be to use with customers, telling a more stripped back, romanticised version, peppered with the philosophy and ethos of the brand to give a greater sense of who they are as a company, as well as where they have come from.

Both tell a story, but the purpose of each is very different, he continues. “And therefore so is the tone and overall content. In essence, storytelling comes into a lot of different elements of our brand strategy work, from the brand stories to the formalised proposition or elevator pitch, the campaign messaging we provide, and so on.”

Storytelling has been central to BGN’s work with V1BE, a boutique studio gym offering full body HIIT workouts in 50 minute classes. “The key was succinctly explaining what makes the V1BE experience different to the traditional budget gym model, then telling a captivating story about what you can expect in each class,” explains Edge.

08. Keep everyone on board

As with any design endeavour, successful storytelling means keeping everyone in the loop and feeling happy about its direction, throughout the process. 

“So speak to or get input from the people that know the brand best,” advises Berry. “Put together brand mood boards to show the art direction you have in mind upfront, which will help to visualise things early on in the process to prevent you chasing a red herring."

If a story is particularly complex, he adds, then storyboarding it can help your client understand what you’re proposing in a way that’s not really possible with flat visuals and can save a lot of revisions and friction. 

“And lastly, I’d suggest getting developers involved in the concept you’re working on at an early stage, as they can really help you consider how you can bring your ideas to life digitally as well as sometimes ruling out certain options for technical reasons.”

09. Be implicit as well as explicit

Design Bridge's packaging for Fortnum & Mason uses storytelling subtly

Design Bridge's packaging for Fortnum & Mason uses storytelling subtly

The story you’re telling doesn’t always have to be super-obvious to the audience, says Asa Cook, creative director at Design Bridge.

“I think you can make the mistake of making storytelling explicit when an implicit approach is far stronger,” he explains. “The human mind is sophisticated enough to make these connections between the visual world and the brand narrative in a subconscious way. The pleasure in discovering the design is in making these connections yourself.”

For example, Design Bridge saw that high-end London department store Fortnum & Mason feels like a grand, welcoming Georgian house. “Moving from shelf to shelf is like moving from one part of the house to the next," says Cook. "So each of our packaging designs reflect a part of the rich history of the house.”

The worst thing you can do is patronise people, he adds. “There are multiple examples of creative executions that feel like they’re patronising or even insulting your intelligence, particularly when they aim to tell the story of a brand with high purpose. It's often not the brand idea or purpose itself that’s the problem, but the creative expression that misses the mark.”

At the other end of the scale, though, designers can sometimes make the story too complex and thus impossible for anyone to actually interpret, even subliminally. “So a story still needs to be simple enough for the design to be bold and intuitive.”

10. Maintain focus on core goals

With all of this to think about, it’s important to never lose sight of your core purpose, says Sandhu. Because the ultimate test of successful storytelling is whether or not it achieves its business aims for the client.

“A novelist wants his or her readers to finish the book with a smile on their face or maybe a teardrop in their eye,” he notes. “A branding and design agency’s core purpose is to get their ‘readers’ to act in a specific way after reading ‘the story’, whether that means booking a cruise holiday, making a hotel reservation, or deciding to visit a particular destination. Always remember that throughout the process.”

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, T3.com and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.