Style Elements in Visual Storytelling

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

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

How do design elements help create a visual style? And how can that visual style convey and evoke emotions in visual storytelling? In this lesson, we'll answer those questions as we examine visual style and design elements.

Visual Storytelling

Malachi is a photographer. He's been hired by a local yoga studio to help convince people to come to the studio. He's decided that he's going to make a series of images of people at the studio, showing the impact of yoga on each of them.

Without realizing it, Malachi has decided to use visual storytelling in his assignment. Visual storytelling involves conveying a message with images. Visual storytelling is just what it sounds like: telling a story with few or no words.

Why should someone like Malachi use visual storytelling? It's an incredibly powerful tool because our brains are hardwired to think in stories and because we respond more viscerally to images than words. Marrying visuals with stories makes a message even more emotionally salient for a viewer. In other words, Malachi's visual stories will touch people more deeply than a written story or a visual with no story.

To help Malachi construct his images, let's take a look at visual style and some design elements that can help him create his style.

Visual Style

Whenever Malachi looks through a book of art, he can often tell which pieces of art are from which time period. Sometimes, he can even tell just from looking at a piece who the artist is.

Malachi is noticing visual style, which is the way that an image is made distinct through the use of artistic elements. There have been many different visual styles throughout history, all with a specific way of doing things.

For example, when Malachi looks at a piece of art or architecture from the Baroque period, he immediately recognizes it by its ornate and intricate details. In contrast, when he sees a piece of art that's geometric, he recognizes that it belongs to the Art Deco period. Likewise, he can recognize the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange by her style, including the way she focused on the faces of people.

Visual style conveys and elicits emotions. It also helps to build a visual story. For example, when Malachi looks at a Dorothea Lange image like the one below, he can feel the worry and sadness of the mother in the image. He can also imagine the story of what the mother and her children have gone through and the challenges they are still facing.


migrant mother


Design Elements

But how does visual style work? How did Dorothea Lange manage to capture all the emotion that she did in that simple image?

Visual style is built on specific design elements, or tools that artists use to craft their images. There are many different design elements that can go into a single image.

First of all, to understand visual style, Malachi needs to understand two important parts. The figure is the central thing or things in the image. This is what the image focuses on. In contrast, the ground is the field on which the figure(s) exist. You can remember ground by thinking of the word 'background,' though the ground is not only the background but what's on all sides of the central figure(s).

Take a look at the Dorothea Lange photograph above and the one below. In both, the central figure is the mother. But in the second one, there is much more ground around her than in the first. Malachi recognizes that simply by backing up and by showing the face of her children, the children went from being part of the ground in the first photo to being a central figure (along with their mother) in the second.


migrant mother 2


What does this mean for Malachi? In the images for his client, he'll want to use the person he's focusing on as the central figure of each photo. But he can use the yoga studio itself, as well as other people, as part of the ground.

There are other elements that Malachi might use, too. Lines guide the eye of the viewer and also convey emotion. Soft, curving lines can give a sense of comfort and restfulness, for example, while vertical lines might give a sense of loftiness and aspirations. When Malachi looks at the image of the Hagia Sophia below, the vertical lines of the walls and the soft curve of the ceiling arch gives him a feeling of both loftiness and peacefulness.


hagia sophia


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