The power of effective visual storytelling

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How can you use photography and other visual elements to support your brand’s content and gain your readers’ trust?

Dan Morley

Visual storytelling is a vital part of any brand. There’s an art in taking a story created by a writer and presenting it in an impactful way. I am fortunate enough to work with a talented design team who are masters at crafting award-winning design. We achieve this by creating imagery that is sympathetic to a client’s brand, and also establishes its own distinct personality, in order to target audiences in a way that is more subtle than traditional advertising.

Of course, each client has a different objective and one image doesn’t fit all. But there are some common themes I like to include in every brief to photographers, stylists, videographers, animators, illustrators and hair and make-up creatives, because the thing that doesn’t change is this: to tell an effective story, you need to engage your audience.

Authenticity is key

To engage your audience, you need them to feel convinced by what they see.

A real person with a real name and identity is much more believable in an editorial context than an actor. You might recognise the man appearing in a story about a small, family-operated business as the model from that airline ad you saw on TV last night, and all of a sudden an intimate story becomes less believable and more commercial.

For this kind of realism, the image’s tone needs to align with the words. In portrait photography this is especially important. Present your talent in a way they feel comfortable with, that’s relevant to their life and their story. There’s no point dressing a farmer in couture. Not only will they feel uncomfortable, they will look uncomfortable.

This is often the first thing that readers will notice as they connect the subject to the story.


Stylist Carol Sae-Yang believes doing your homework is key to styling a talent authentically. “Learning about their story, their background, and the reason for the photoshoot makes a big difference in my decision making as a stylist. The wardrobe should be a part of the story telling.”

Likewise, photographing your talent in an environment that is relevant to their life and their story strengthens your message. They will look more at ease in a familiar environment, and their true personality, the one that’s important to the story, is more likely to show through.

Knowing how to tell a story with a portrait is one thing, but being sure that you will be able to achieve it is another. A quality creative team can make all the difference at a photo shoot, and help ensure your visual storytelling ideas are brought to life. No amount of art direction can make up for the absence of a talented creative team.

However, the cost of creative teams adds up quickly. Mix up your designs with original images and stock photography to keep within budget. Using the odd piece of stock photography to support your commissioned images is much less noticeable, and unlikely to dominate a design.

Illustrate and animate

When photography isn’t enough or won’t work in a particular design, illustration can be a good way to add variety to your visual content.


Sometimes, photography may not be the best option. You might be dealing with a sensitive subject matter, or a subject whose identity needs protection. By illustrating or animating the key themes and ideas expressed in their story, you bypass the need to use stock photography and footage that might feel clichéd.

Visual diversity captures your readers’ imagination, and they will appreciate the element of surprise. It is also an opportunity to add a very distinct personality to your visual content.

Type it out

Typography can take a design to a new level, but designs that are overembellished, or headline treatments that become the hero, run the risk of stealing attention away from your commissioned images.

A clean and pared back approach to typography allows the imagery to be the hero and tell a story. That’s not to say that headlines shouldn’t stand out, but readers are going to feel more connected to a convincing photograph of a real person than a chosen headline treatment.


Of course, there are exceptions, and some of the most successful designs featuring portrait photography incorporate bold typography. If a designer can consider how the headline and the layout will fit together before the shoot, it makes the final design much more impactful for the audience.

There are many ways you can create compelling visual storytelling in a design, and best practice changes from client to client. But photography that convinces, and visual elements that support your design, will capture your readers’ imagination, gain their trust and communicate your client’s message in a subtle but far more powerful way.

Dan Morley, art director