Visual Storytelling: Child's Play

Telling a story elegantly and simply through visual communications isn't easy, but anyone who was once a child can do it.Children's storybooks delight children and parents alike because of the dazzling interplay of words and pictures. Their success underscores the power of visual storytelling.

"Sure, picture books are great, but I never could do anything like that," is a typical refrain. The truth is, you can tell a story visually if you let the child in you out.

Martin Salisbury, an illustrator, and Morag Styles, a professor of children's literature, collaborated on Children's Picturebooks, The Art of Visual Storytelling. The book describes how these books charm young and old and the key stages of conceiving a visual narrative.

In an interview with NPR, Salisbury says the appeal of picture books is "the simple visual style [that] allows readers to project their own personalities and thoughts onto the character." Sparking imagination in viewers leads to engagement. And that engagement can be etched deeply in the memory, as reflected by how many pictures and phrases adults remember from children's picture books.

Visual narratives aren't dumbed-down narratives or merely pictures added to illustrate words. "It's that issue of condensing something into something very elegant and short, usually 32 pages, which is very, very complex to do," explains Salisbury. "Making it look simple and elegant is perhaps the hardest thing to do."

It also takes hard work, much the way Mark Twain meant when he said he would have written a shorter letter — if he had more time.

As understatement has fallen out of favor to the more raucous exchanges of reality TV, visual communication remains a source of subtlety. In his NPR interview, Salisbury cites Rosie's Walk as an example of pictures telling a subtle story. Rosie the hen struts through a farmyard while a fox stalks her in the background. The text never mentions the fox's intentions as it describes a series of misadventures by the fox. Nevertheless, children invariably shout at Rosie to watch out for the fox. In marketing, we call that subliminal messaging.

The value of the book is that it reveals, step-by-step, the artistry behind blending words with pictures. One of the best suggestions is to spend time thinking about a visual language that corresponds to written language. That could involve design concepts, colors and image choices.

Another practical must is storyboarding, even if it means drawing stick figures, a technique popularized by Dan Roam in his book, The Back of the Napkin.

Most of us read, not write children's books, so how would we use visual communication? One of the most ubiquitous uses is in electronic presentations. Other uses include marketing materials, advocacy pieces and invitations to events. Of course, don't forget that most visual of all media, the video.

Children's books remain popular because they tap into a well-worn groove in our brain on how to absorb and analyze information. We see it, we connect it to what we know and remember it, often for a lifetime.

When I have a bad day, I think of Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. My problems don't seem that awful in comparison.