Designing Conflict & Plot in Visual Media

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Conflict and plot drive visual storytelling. But, how can visual artists convey them in design? This lesson will look at the role of conflict and plot in visual media as well as design elements to help convey them.

Visual Media

Jayla is a graphic designer. A client has hired her to create a series of related images that will be placed in sequential order as full-page ads in a magazine. She'll be creating a story over three pages to promote a new dishwasher.

Jayla will be using visual media, which involves communicating using images. One way that visual media is used is to create stories. This works particularly well because humans are programmed to think in terms of narrative. So Jayla might want to create a story across the three ads to help engage viewers' emotions as well as cognition. To help Jayla with her visual storytelling assignment, let's take a look at the role of conflict in visual media.

Conflict vs. Plot

Imagine Star Wars without the battle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Imagine Snow White without the Evil Queen. Imagine just about any story, and you'll realize that there's tension there.

Conflict is the struggle between opposing forces or characters in a story. It's a key part of storytelling because without conflict, a story doesn't really go anywhere. Many people get conflict confused with plot, which is the series of events that occur in a story. For example, the conflict in Star Wars is the battle between the two armies. The plot is the series of events (Luke's aunt and uncle are killed, he joins the rebels, and so on) that occurs. The conflict drives the plot.

Let's go back to Jayla for a moment. Remember that she needs a story over three images to engage her viewers and make them want to buy a dishwasher. The conflict of her story might be between a husband and wife. Maybe the wife is angry with her husband for not doing the dishes.

The plot then will come from that conflict. Maybe in the first image, the woman sees the dishes aren't done and glares at her husband. Then, the husband buys a dishwasher in the second image of the series. Finally, in the last image, the dishes are done and the wife forgives her husband.

There's one more element that interacts with the plot and conflict. Motivation is a character's reason for acting the way he or she does. This feeds into and springs from the conflict, and drives the plot. For example, in Jayla's story, the husband buys a dishwasher so his wife won't be mad at him. That's his motivation, which comes from the conflict and moves the plot forward.

Design Elements for Conflict

Jayla understands the role of conflict, plot, and motivation in storytelling. But, what does that have to do with graphic design? There are specific design elements that graphic designers can use to convey conflict in visual media. The four main ones can be remembered by the acronym C.R.A.P.: contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity.

Contrast is the visual difference between an object and the background and/or other objects. Contrast is often achieved through the use of color, bold or italics for fonts, and/or size. For example, Jayla might want to fade the colors of the image except for the dishwasher, which she leaves in bright color. This will contrast it with the rest of the dull kitchen and make it stand out. She's highlighting the conflict between the old kitchen, which didn't help the couple, and the dishwasher, which provides an end to their argument.

Repetition involves repeating an image or design element. This can mean repetition of a color, repetition of position, or another type of repetition. For example, Jayla might want to show the same shot of the kitchen in each image, with only the people and addition of the dishwasher changing. She might also want to repeat the color scheme of the kitchen cabinets and backsplash in the color of the text.

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