I come from a family of storytellers. We talk with our hands and in grand gestures, retelling tall tales and ordinary tales alike, and we delight in keeping our audience guessing and doubling over in laughter for a grand finale. Once at a slumber party, my mother gathered my friends to tell them the story of the “Great Twin Mix Up” (spoiler alert: my name might be Cecilia). In my family, the birth of a sibling could be of equally mythic proportions as would a trip to the grocery store.
I bring that strong background of storytelling to my work as a digital designer. Like good storytellers, designers are able to pace a person’s experience moment by moment, break up dense content with large photographs to lighten the load, and provide structure so the users don’t feel lost but sprinkle in elements of surprise to keep users on their toes.
For decades now, the creative folks in print and film have had (nearly complete) control over how their audience experiences their stories. And there’s been a long-held question on how to incorporate the ability to tell a story into the digital realm. How do we decide what to share and in what order? How do we not get overwhelmed by the infinite space the digital space provides?
Let’s start with a rule of thumb: you can’t say everything all at once.
Think of your website as a conversational introduction, like meeting a stranger on the street.
Start with the basics.
“Hello, my name is Jessica.”
Focus on a single phrase or a feeling you want to convey with immediacy.
“I love to tell compelling visual stories.”
Build a world around it.
No one said this would be easy, but take it step by step. Think about your main point, how it connects to all the other things you want to say, and what you want the user to feel. Then, emphasize them as part of a story. Once your content-based priorities are in order, you can create a visual hierarchy to reinforce these values.
Which brings up another rule of thumb: if everything is bold then nothing is bold.
Remember that. Seriously. For there to be effective and powerful moments, there also need to be quiet ones for contrast. This is true in any well told story.
As a digital storyteller, I’m inspired by the growing number of tools at our disposal. When parallax scrolling took off three years ago, we got excited, perhaps a little too excited. Designers used it everywhere, in somewhat meaningless ways, and it created fatigue in our industry and frustration on the part of our clients. The reason this technology was so widely embraced harkens back to using pacing as an essential part of storytelling. Not everything had to appear instantaneously: We could take our time, build suspense, and bring a narrative to life.
In recent years, our addiction to heavy-handed animations has (thankfully) matured into more sophisticated experiences. Less is more, and subtlety is the hallmark of our digital worldliness.
Storytelling at Work
Gravitate recently launched a website redesign for Gigya (Gigya case study). With a hugely impressive client list and the sky-is-the-limit growth, did come one hiccup, how to explain what Gigya does. That’s the task our team tackled for the home page.
To convey how Gigya works, we used real-world examples. We storyboarded, brainstormed, and had many lengthy discussions with our client. I’m pretty sure I began dreaming about Gigya. Together we began to understand that the foundation of Gigya as a technology is about building relationships. It helps companies understand their customers by extracting meaning from thousands of seemingly insignificant online interactions.
Scene-by-scene time-based CSS animations don’t overpower the experience; they facilitate understanding. Touches of the unexpected (along with a few oohs and aahs) keep the audience scrolling. By starting the story with one person and one interaction, we can then build the bigger picture.
Another great example in digital storytelling is the This Place Journal. The website and film are constructed around the concept of highlighting the specialness of a location.
While this location may be wholly unknown to most people, it’s significant to a few, and they want to share how this pinpoint on a map makes them feel. Each chapter shares with us intimate, authentic moments, and it’s as though we get to observe the unique beauty of the Oregon coast through another person’s eyes. The photography captures both dramatic and quiet moments, while moving videos, sounds, and animations make the viewers feel like they’re looking into someone’s memory, experiencing that person’s nostalgia. It’s incredibly powerful.
These websites illustrate the bright future of storytelling in the digital world. This makes me hopeful. In a small way, storytelling brings the humanness of experiences to websites. Web content has become more conversational and casual. Talk with your audience members, and I don’t mean a cold call while they’re eating their chicken and quinoa. Storytellers know when to give and when to take. Get to know your audience and what matters to it; only then will your messaging be heard clearly over the noise.
Last rule of thumb?
When design and content work together, the result is stronger, it resonates, and it stays with us. I challenge you to make your website more human; besides, what’s more human than telling a story? In digital storytelling, there is no happily ever after, only what comes next. Read more about digital storytelling and our process in the Gigya case study.