Bringing the performer to life through still image: storyboards

DES 304 | School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin | Professor Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304
6 min readSep 22, 2020

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Storyboard for Captain Hook. Image: wikia

Storyboarding is an old, well used tool for any kind of visual storytelling. For design, storyboards display important moments in the design concept.

The power of the storyboard

Storyboards are powerful tools for designers because they “cheaply and efficiently” demonstrate a design concept in use in space, over time. Thus, we are afforded to imagine what a design might feel like, and how it informs — and is informed by — the world around it.

Storyboard I created for a project about gardening

As compared to a journey map (which reveal and abstract processes), storyboards are less process-driven and center around storytelling and narrative.

Creating a storyboard

As with other kinds of design techniques, a good storyboard often begins as a low fidelity sketch and ends as a more detailed, highly realized artifact. One technique is to begin with titles (lets you quickly see and iterate on high level), then thumbnail sketches. Sometimes this level of fidelity is good enough. However, more detailed drawings and captions might be helpful.

Although, sometimes, there’s an iconic image in your mind that you begin with, working “backwards” to titles and captions from that idea. These stages are outlined in more detail below, using an example of drafting a storyboard for a speculative morning coffee ritual, in which bags of coffee beans are paired with literature chosen by the co-op who grew the coffee:

In this future, the exchange of literature with commodities from around the world is now commonplace. Instead of fragmented, sanitized, and story-less products, communities now connect and share experiences and worldviews via exchange of literature attached to their goods. In this sense, those supplying goods such as coffee, cashews, palm oil, and so on, are able to articulate points of view once scarce and only viewed in horrifying documentaries of exploitation.

Coffee co-ops now share booklets and zines from their region and communities. Bags of coffee beans now typically come with booklets, or links to online artworks or literature, sharing the stories, concerns, and rituals of coffee growers.

Upon buying a bag of beans, most coffee drinkers place their newly acquired booklet near their coffee-making apparatus. When prepping and drinking their coffee, they reach for the booklet. As expected, while they read, the cup of coffee becomes more charismatic, full of depth,. At breakfast and during coffee breaks, drinkers often discuss not only the tasting notes of the coffee, but the sociotechnical and cultural concerns surrounding the people who steward the plants too.

Defining a goal

Because of their focus on visual narrative, storyboards are useful for working through and communicating the meanings and feeling of a design idea. We begin by defining what a storyboard needs to communicate in general.

Our speculative coffee storyboard should communicate the banality of habits that may be both uncommon and exceptional in the United States:

  1. having a deep connection with the coffee growers of a coffee
  2. reading of material from other cosmologies and cultures

Beginning a storyboard

Titles convey high level narrative arcs, including how the whole narrative flows over time. In creating titles, we explore and define what our storyboard communicates about our concept. You can iterate quickly, rearranging and creating + destroying different titles.

Choosing scenes to portray. Often enough, we only have the capability and time to bring a few key storyboards into being. Thus, we have to be careful and choose moments that demonstrate key parts of the experience (where felt experience is precarious, disrupted, or finds harmony and completion), the design (such as how a design actually works), or the larger context at play (norms, values,etc.).

In the case of designing storyboards for speculative designs, those moments are also often moments where the exceptional design (for us in the present) is demonstrated as banal, quotidian, etc. in its world (e.g., drinking from a sentient coffee cup is demonstrated as a normal fixture of everyday life).

Storyboard titles for a speculative design about literature paired with coffee

In choosing which scenes to portray for this speculative coffee design, three scenes stood out:

  • Co-op selects literature. Reinforces the point that in this future, growers of commodities have found agency in co-ops, able to articulate points of view once scarce.
  • Buying coffee literature. Few grocery stores have “fair trade” coffee, let alone information about the growers. In this future, it’s important to note that most commodities come with stories from those growers.
  • Reading literature while drinking coffee. It’s key to note how a coffee drinker’s normal coffee drinking time incorporates literature from other places. Further, showing the other end of the relationship between grower and drinker completes the loop introduced in the first scene.

Thumbnail sketches convey broad interaction and spatial aspects in our concepts. Creating thumbnail sketches allows us to explore and define what, spatially and interaction-wise, is relevant to demonstrate through image. The thumbnail also affords quick iteration to explore how those details might look and feel.

Storyboard thumbnail sketches for a speculative design about literature paired with coffee

Note how this storyboard shows just enough detail to introduce the concept, though does not communicate specific interactions not core to the storyboard’s goal (looking at different zines from different places, preparing the coffee itself, searching for literature to pair with coffee beans, growing the coffee itself).

Polishing a storyboard

Details. More detailed drawings allow us to clarify and make more legible those broad brush aspects of the space/time of the interactions in our concept. Details and style add connotative meaning, further allowing us to think through and communicate how it might feel to live with (and in) our design concept.

Higher fidelity storyboard demonstrating how phones / tech tables might support planning, plant identification, and storytelling at a garden/community center (in a gratuitously 2003 Microsoft clipart style)

Iconic representation. In choosing a style for a storyboard, considering level of abstraction is an important consideration. In Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud asserts that more iconic representations open up space for interpretation and relatability [1]. Thus, storyboards with more iconic representation (stick figures, etc.) may be more relatable — allowing us to imagine ourselves as the characters in the story board.

McCloud, Understanding Comics [1]

Captions allow us to capture, communicate, and reinforce (potentially abstract) interaction details of our images. They can also situate the parts of the image in terms of context, culture, values, and norms.

Semi-polished storyboard for a speculative design about literature paired with coffee

In the case of the speculative coffee design, the drawing style was intended to communicate visceral aspects the concept — facial expressions, emotion, dialogue, and environment.

Deepening the practice

Storyboarding is a tool older than the “professional” practice of interaction design. Thus, it’s key to look towards disciplines such as architecture, animation, graphic novels, etc. for a deeper understanding of the nuance, intricacies, tools, and trends for creating and communicating with storyboards.

In sum, the storyboard is a tool for imagination and immersion. Successful storyboards make legible and visceral the abstract concepts in our designs. Indeed, a good storyboard allows a conversation about how a design might allow us to move through — and feel through — the world.

Sources

  1. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  2. Storyboards. by Design Kit (IDEO)

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Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304

Data viz, computational design, interaction design / Professor at UT Austin / MDes Carnegie Mellon