8 Designers' Tips for Better Visual Storytelling

8 Designers' Tips for Better Visual Storytelling

IDEO designers & OpenIDEO community members share their words to work by
Dima Boulad
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Every story begins with the foundation of language. Oftentimes, when we think about language, our minds default to written text and spoken conversation. But language is more than words—it’s any way of communicating across mediums that brings an idea, topic, or conversation to life. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. As designers, when we explore the craft of storytelling, visual language may be one of the most important languages of them all.

Earlier this year, OpenIDEO, in partnership with the Hewlett Foundation, launched our first Challenge on visual language. We called on visual creators from a multitude of mediums to join us in answering the following question: “How might we reimagine a more compelling and relatable visual language for cybersecurity?” With the close of the Challenge and announcement of five Top Ideas, we’re highlighting several visual design tips to get you inspired for your next project.

The thrill—and challenge—of design is forging into uncharted territory to help make the abstract tangible, the overwhelming exciting, and the technical accessible. With the topic of cybersecurity, we navigated the ambiguity of doing just that. After learning from IDEO designers and Challenge participants across disciplines about how they use visual language to translate complex topics, we’ve curated some tips and tricks to share with you. Learn from IDEOers Felicia, May, Allison, and Erika, plus Challenge participants Abraham, Abrahma, Claudio, and John.

Felicia Chiao
Industrial designer, IDEO San Francisco

Felicia Chiao is a designer and illustrator based in San Francisco. By day, she works as an industrial designer for IDEO's food practice; at night she has been drawing in sketchbooks for over seven years, mostly for fun.

"When starting a composition, create an anchor first, then build around it. The anchor can be the focus of the piece (like an object/animal/person) or a setting (interior, beach, city, etc.) and the rest of the elements drawn in after should support it.

You don’t need to know what the whole drawing is going to look like when you start it. Start with what you know and build into it as you go. I work mostly with markers, which often limits my choice of colors for the color palette, but you can start with the colors you know you will use (a red apple, blue water, etc) and then looking at your palette, pick which other colors would go well with what you have.”

‍May Kodama
Graphic designer, IDEO San Francisco

May is a true-crime-podcast-listening, plant caring, constantly eating, Japanese-American graphic designer at IDEO.

"Try limiting your color palette to 1-5 colors, and even limit the shades of those colors. Explore how simply you can communicate depth and perspective with the layering of the limited palette. You can start with monochrome in pure black and white before layering the additional complexity of color.

The thing that motivates me the most is experimentation and exploration. I find that as long as I'm constantly doing and learning something new, I stay inspired and excited about the work. However, don’t look at too much inspiration. Sometimes, I can get lost on the Pinterest train, clicking into link after link after link. Visual overload can crowd and push out your own ideas, so be careful to balance looking externally and looking internally. Always be hungry for discovery, but save space for your own creativity to flow.”

Allison Press
Interaction designer, IDEO San Francisco

Allison is an interaction designer and strategist at IDEO on a mission to design for the public good. Whether it’s improving how public institutions serve their citizens, creating digital access to learning, or cultivating civic engagement, she is driven toward systems-level challenges.

"A balanced composition has three things—a large element (like a colored background), a medium element (like the focal point), and a small element (to add visual texture). If you want to take your creation to the next level, adding a little bit of texture in digital illustrations goes a long way.”

Erika Díaz Gómez
Former OpenIDEO design fellow, Bógota, Colombia

Erika was born in Colombia and loves creating stories without words. She thinks that telenovelas are more interesting than science fiction.

"Create your own personal and technical rules; fail, win and be patient. Learn from yourself. Document, revisit and appreciate what you designed in the past. Explore your personal craft and celebrate your creator's identity. Make and repeat. Go analog, explore both your personal and craft's constraints, and don't let your commercial work take over. Art and side projects are the best teachers.”

Abraham Pena
Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge participant
Doral, Florida, USA

Abraham is a web designer and brand strategist dedicated to creating conceptual worlds for his clients through the use of metaphors and visual allegories.

  1. "Research a lot. The key to this process is to have clear concepts from the start. Then think of the final users: How would they understand what you want to say? Even a complex topic like cybersecurity can be translated into an easy-to-understand visual language, just by making the right connections with the visual references of the final user.
  2. Iterate like crazy. Your first idea is not always going to be the best.
  3. Interact with your community. Your peers and mentors can give you priceless feedback and they will let you see the design from an outside perspective."

Abrahma Tansini
Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge participant
Pamplona, Spain

Abrahma is a passionate logo and identity designer with experience developing brands, advising enterprises internationally. Passionate about illustration, he has worked as a freelance illustrator on children’s book illustrator and also loves to make caricatures and cartoons.

“The best way to create images for a technical project is to know the concepts and ideas, plus have a broad knowledge of the subject, which in this case was cybersecurity. The mentorship and guidance from cybersecurity experts that we were paired with for this Challenge was important and necessary. As designers and illustrators, we are not necessarily familiar with the technical concepts of cybersecurity, but we do have the tools to transmit complex concepts through the power of visual images.”

Claudio Rousselon
Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge participant
Cuernavaca, Mexico

Claudio is a freelance artist focused on muralism, illustration and printmaking. He’s a creative that has always explored the themes of technology, sci-fi, aerospace, and energy sciences.

Draw a lot! Sketching and mindstorming, writing things down, and reading lots. I believe in the power of instinct and how it expands with creativity. Inspiration comes to me mostly during work—the more you dig into it, the more things pop up in your head. It works for me to expand the ideas to the wall or a BIG table: getting a visual perspective of the concept helps a lot. Change your process and it will change your outcome. Also, never forget to embrace accidents and mistakes. Not all of them are useful and some can go beyond repair, but you can learn a lot from them. Plus, the feeling of being amazed by unexpected results is great.”

John Hurley
Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge participant
Boston, MA, USA

John is a product designer and art director with experience in UI/UX and visual design, creating wireframes and visual concepts for a range of platforms. As a designer, he enjoys solving complex problems by using a holistic design process with a focus on multi-disciplinary collaboration and rapid iteration.

“Collaborate. Reach out to as many people as you can. Everything from subject matter experts to co-workers, friends, and anything in between. Our final submission was the result of gathering opinions and exploring our topic in ways that are simply impossible to accomplish on your own.”

If you’re interested in learning more, you can browse the final portfolios of 23 shortlisted visual creators from the Challenge on the OpenIDEO platform.

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Dima Boulad
Dima is based in the Middle East and is moved by colors, sunshine, and positive social impact. With a background in visual communication, she is a service designer and researcher who uses human-centered design to introduce innovative problem-solving processes in organizations.
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