It can be tricky to whittle down the definition of “visual storytelling,” when, if you think about it, everything from your Instagram presence to an advertisement in a magazine could fall under that umbrella.
Debbie Millman—a bona fide expert on the topic—suggests you “think about the fact that it’s two art forms, the language and the visual, but one medium and one message.” In other words, the two should be in harmony. Another way to define a visual story? A tool that helps us to “intrinsically understand what makes us human.”
This is all very broad, but Millman lays it out in finer detail in her new Skillshare video series, “The Art of the Story: Creating Visual Narratives.” The hour-long, ten-part class from the co-founder and chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School Visual Arts (and the president of the design division at Sterling Brands and host of the podcast Design Matters—her résumé is dizzying) walks students through the practice of visual storytelling, from initial concept to finished, final project.
The main objective of the class is to “visualize a piece of personal writing.” If you’re no Faulkner, “get over that,” Millman says. The piece of writing could be an email, text message, or something you wrote in your 6th grade diary. The more raw and authentic, the better, says Millman. In this case, flowery writing takes a backseat to authenticity. “Look at your journals, look at your scraps of paper, see what you can discover or rediscover about yourself…remember your first love, or your first heartbreak, or your first job.”
Rather than throw new students into the deep end, Millman draws on her own wealth of knowledge on the subject to supply plenty of historical context, going all the way back to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Millman spins this yarn of visual storytelling through history into modern times. Betty and Veronica comics, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware are all contemporary examples of visual storytelling. So is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art, and designer Jessica Hische’s playfully embossed No. 2 pencils.
As for the actual craft and design, Millman says you can use almost anything to bring the writing into the visual realm. In her own many-paged piece called “Fare Thee Well,” which she workshops in the series, she says, “there was felt, there was twine, I figured why not play?” Any material can serve as fodder for the visual storyteller. In fact, this is Millman’s driving philosophy throughout: that visual storytelling is beautifully inclusive and powerfully personal.
To find out more about how Millman created “Fare Thee Well,” and her expert advice on how to sketch and design your own visual stories, sign up for “The Art of Storytelling: Creating Visual Narratives” here.