Storytelling is a buzzword that you’ll find all too often in the graphic design, web design, UX, and marketing spheres.
As one of the most basic human social and cultural expressions, storytelling is applicable across industries and subjects. It's an art, a science, and a process.
The story breathes life into a design, a brand, or a product. It injects it with meaning and fosters emotional connection, which causes resonance with an audience. And it's a crucial element in the design process!
In the case of design storytelling, your goal should be to create that emotional bond between your design and its audience. You should use imagination and empathy to spark a connection and take your audience on a journey, make them feel something, and drive them to action.
Design gives us the opportunity to weave beautiful stories through visual communication and immersive experience.
As design and technology evolve, we are seeing just how central elements of storytelling are to our everyday experiences, from web design to marketing and particularly social media in all its story-obsessed glory.
In this piece, we’ll look at the top storytelling trends for design in 2021, that will enhance your design process and the impact of your projects. Utilizing these trends will increase your capacity to inspire and solve problems through your projects.
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Storytelling is ancient. It’s been around since humans have. It’s an innate part of our being.
We can see the very first evidence of storytelling in prehistoric cave paintings from the first humans, who wished to share, record, and understand their experiences. Storytelling has always been part of the human experience.
As social beings, humans need to express their individual experiences to connect with others. When one human recognizes their individual experience in another’s, a connection is formed.
Traditional storytelling helps us understand the experiences we have, to empathize and emotionally connect with one another. We use it to define ourselves and our creations, as well as to entertain.
You're probably familiar with the traditional story structure of the narrative arc, which is a journey with a set of circumstances that require resolution. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end that follows the arc of exposition, climax, and dénouement.
To tell a compelling story in design, we don't necessarily need the entire narrative structure like a film or novel might. Often, we can just focus on one or a few narrative elements to tell a great visual story or enhance a product experience.
While utilizing the arc in the design process, particularly in UX design, is necessary, we can also just focus on one element at a time, for example:
- Journey or “plot”
Emotion, empathy, and connection
The purpose of a designer is twofold: to create connection (usually by evoking emotion) and to solve problems.
Empathy is how we relate to one another- it puts us in the experience of another human or group of humans so that we can understand from their perspective and tap into what they might feel.
Creating captivating stories helps to guide us into the experience of others. Like anything creative, the design process is an iterative process. Bringing storytelling into this process helps us to return to the purpose of the project, and not get lost in the messiness that creativity can sometimes be.
Being guided by emotion, empathy and connection results in design work and visual communication that gets the audience on the same team as the brand, the product, the artwork.
Storytelling trends in design
Trends are always shifting, but the ones we look at below include elements of storytelling and design which will only continue to evolve, so these will always be relevant!
Interactive design and user experience
“User experience” is another buzzword in the design and marketing world, but this "trend" will only grow in importance. The demand for UX designers is massive, with an 18% growth in demand forecast for the next ten years.
When we are designing products, experiences, and communication for marketing campaigns, we are designing for an audience. Ensuring that their experience is optimized on every level from visual satisfaction to ease and simplicity, is obviously essential.
Storytelling from the perspective of the target audience is used in UX design to guide the process and design decisions so that the result will be optimized to satisfy their needs.
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UX designers create personas that represent the target audience to embody their perspective. They incorporate various elements of storytelling such as scenario generation, storyboards, theme, character, and dialogue, to map an ideal user experience that has considered the entire journey.
You’ve probably, at some point in your life, heard a creative director say, “it’s all about the experience, man.”
Well, they’re right. Consuming is an experience, and we must design with this in mind.
An impactful and satisfying experience is often an interactive one, which has given rise to the trend of interaction in the digital sphere, commonly referred to as Interaction design (IX).
An interactive experience might take on a variety of forms, but the foundation is always that it's a two-way flow of information, between user and product.
By completing a task like a quiz or, even, at the most basic level of IX, selecting an "add to cart" function, the user collaborates with the digital experience to co-create an experience unique to each user.
A cool example of Interaction Design is Nike's Reactor website, where you can build your own sneakers.
Social media, mobile apps, and web development have given rise to a standard where users and consumers expect to be heard by a brand. Consumers are in dialogue with companies. We need to design with this dialogue and interactivity at the forefront.
This is a huge trend in the digital sector, and a surefire way to make any design project ten times more engaging.
Applying the concept of gamification requires caution, as it might not be appropriate for every brand or story. However, if it's fitting, you can engage and fascinate your audience while concisely putting across your message by creating a fun, game-like environment.
A good example of simple gamification used to enhance a marketing campaign is M&M’s "eye-spy" campaign.
The company was launching a new product- the pretzel-flavored M&M. To create more engagement for their marketing campaign, they turned it into a game of eye-spy.
All that was required was an image of M&M’s, with one pretzel amongst them that had to be found. People loved it! It was colorful, engaging, and oh-so-simple. It also generated 25,000 new likes on their Facebook page, six thousand shares, and 10,000 comments. Yeah. Pretty engaging.
Characters are central to storytelling and play a pivotal role in enhancing design as well. It's an age-old fundamental that's still alive and strong.
If you're designing a product, developing graphics for a brand identity, or putting together a marketing campaign, creating a character that your target audience will want to be, to have, or simply admire is textbook marketing psychology that can really lead to a lot of success in your design projects.
There are tons of brand mascots you can probably name off the top of your head, from Micky mouse to Frosty’s tiger.
Characters are a wonderful way to bring life to a brand and deepen its identity. Characters can bring together the themes, color palettes, typography, and tone of a brand in one succinct asset.
Telling stories through text
This might seem like an obvious move, but in 2021, text-based storytelling is making a big comeback. As a designer, you can use bold and captivating typography to get your visual story noticed.
Using text as the focal point in a visual story immediately makes it more captivating, and it will be exciting to see this trend evolve and what designers do with it!
Audio is a fantastic way to bring story and life to design projects. It can be used to improve accessibility in web design, guide a gallery experience, and overlay static visuals on social media, for a more dynamic experience.
With audio clips gaining popularity on social media platforms such as Instagram to promote audio-based media, there are some cool opportunities to marry audio with graphic design for an ultra-engaging multimedia experience.
It's going to be exciting to see how this trend evolves!
Any designer will know the sweet, deliciousness of a theme that ties everything together, that can be created around and continuously returned to when you get a bit off track in the messy creative process.
"Theme" is another storytelling fundamental that's more ongoing than simply a trend, but seems to snowball and only gain importance, especially with anything and everything becoming a brand on social media, theme is being used more and more for differentiation.
Having a visual theme in place makes your design appear more consistent. Plus, it binds elements together in a way that ensures your audience knows they're part of the same theme.
An excellent example of this is Google Jigsaw, which boasts a dark background, dense blocks of text, and simple line shapes. The site's appealing animations and space in all the right places keep users eagerly scrolling to keep up with the story as it reveals itself. Check it out!
Yet another buzzword. "Be authentic," says every marketing guru out there, which ironically defeats the point of authenticity, because it's innately not something you can try to be.
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So here is the challenge when it comes to design: how true can you be to the product and the target audience? The more real you can be about the most honest needs and desires of your customers, and the objectives of the brand, the more likely you are to create something authentic that stands out.
So much of what we see on the internet feels inauthentic, heavily edited, or simply not quite real. The cool thing about design is that each designer brings their own "meraki."
Designers who are connected to their individual style and process are more likely to be successful because they can inject a breath of individuality into a brand, website, or online profile.
There's nothing wrong with writing authentic copy from your own view, incorporating emotional (or even untouched) photos into your designs, and expressing why you and your designs are important and worthy. Most web users today are always eager to see some authentic self-expression.
Representation and inclusivity
Designers have an important responsibility, as people who play a role in how stories are represented at, often, a mass scale.
Having realistic and diverse representation in design is an important part of the story we tell. As designers, we must be aware of how we perpetuate or shift stories in the media.
Representation in storytelling and in the media has undergone a major evolution. It's important that we are conscious about this when creating characters, brand identity, and interacting with target audiences. It's important that we know how audiences wish to be represented to bring this to life through design.
The characters featured in the language learning app Duolingo are a good example of inclusivity in design storytelling.
Symbolism plays an essential role in traditional and visual storytelling and is a big graphic design trend at the moment.
There are tons of interesting psychological factors behind symbolism, and how people are influenced by symbols of power. Symbolism plays an essential role in storytelling, from ancient myths that use animal totems, gods, and goddesses as symbols to convey messages, to novels, contemporary films, and of course modern branding.
Symbolism has always been fundamental in branding and graphic design, but now we're seeing an interesting revival of the trend that's looking back to ancient symbolism for inspiration such as that found in Egyptian, Roman, and Aztec cultures.
The symbols that have stood the test of time through history's most influential ancient cultures are deeply alluring.
Storytelling is a powerful vehicle for conveying narratives and emotions in a visual form.
You can tell engaging stories with design in many ways, ranging from developing outstanding user journeys and characters, to incorporating games and sound into your work.
Your ultimate goal should be to connect your story with your visuals and brand in a way your audience will really resonate with. It all comes down to bridging that connection!
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Emma is a Content Writer for Linearity in Berlin. Her hobbies include making ceramics, roller skating, drawing, and 2D animation.