A New Medium on Medium

Visual stories have arrived, and here are the two distinct strategies for crafting them.


As it went, our first challenge had nothing to do with storytelling. Instead, we came face-to-face with you—the citizens of the Medium medium—and specifically, your behaviors, habits, and expectations.

This double page spread is from a 1965 issue of Life Magazine. Note how your eye moves across the page, first from the woman’s face, then to smaller images, and finally to the pull-quote in the upper left. No one expects readers to consume the story from beginning to end. Via: http://sighswhispers.blogspot.com/2010/12/we-are-animals-in-world-no-one-knows.html
This Huffington Post story on New Year celebrations begins with roughly 300 words and finishes with the slideshow widget here. Note the plethora of distractions.

Strategy 1: The seamless, single narrative (best for fiction)

There are many ways to constrain a story, and as we learned on this project, the choice of fiction had a huge impact on our visual strategy. What’s it like to read a great novel? How about a comic book? Or a movie? Our hypothesis was that great fiction must be engrossing—for non-fiction, that’s optional—and ideally, readers will complete a fictional story in a single sitting. To translate this to Medium, we established four guidelines:

  1. Don’t use captions. They draw the reader’s eye away from body text.
  2. Blunt, emotional photos work best. Because people (usually) read fiction quickly, images are most effective when they are clearly related to the text and can be digested at a glance.
  3. Full-bleed images (like below) are natural signals of transition. Think of images as punctuation. In particular, full-bleed shots will start or end scenes even if you don’t intend them to.
  4. Full-column images should be avoided. They cause readers to stop and stare; you want to elicit emotions, not invite interpretation.
  1. The text below this image appears to be a new section, even though I don’t intend it to be.
  2. Is this a caption? Or part of the body text? It’s hard to say in a non-fiction essay like this one. If this were a fictional story however, you’d easily recognize it as body text (which is what it should be).
  3. If you’re on a laptop, you probably can’t see the man on the right. But he’s visible in the photo I uploaded. Auto-cropping is necessary technically, but it can harm relatively complex images like this one.

Strategy 2: The classic photo essay (best for non-fiction)

If you’re keen for readers to look deeply into your photographs, you’ll want to skip the advice above—and hell, you might even find it offensive. Roughly speaking, the above strategy uses images to guide a mood and queue scenes; alternately, with the right editing, you can design stories that put the interpretation of images front and center. This strategy is best suited to journalism and documentary storytelling, and works well in image-first workflows. Guidelines:

  1. Important images should be full-column (like below). This setting presents images as large as they’ll get without automatic cropping.
  2. Use other image sizes only for support. Full-bleed images work best if they have simple compositions and clear meanings. Small sizes are good for adding ancillary details.
  3. Expect readers to stare. People will naturally pause at full-column images, so don’t shy from complex and challenging compositions.
  4. Caption everything. So as long as you’re telling a non-fiction story, your images will benefit from captions—and might look weird without them.
Stop and stare awhile, won’t you? If this image caught your eye—and it probably did if you’re reading this—you’re seeing the power of full-column photos to engage readers. The risk, of course, is that they distract.

What’s next?

A few years back, the game designer Jesse Schell gave rise to the idea that every game rests on four pillars: aesthetics, mechanics, story, and technology. Visual stories on the web are subject to remarkably similar forces. That thought line has led me to think about Medium this way: The platform takes care of the technology and mechanics; the aesthetics and story are up to writers and photographers like our small team—and like you. Awful convenient stuff, considering that’s what we do best.



The best narrative visual stories on Medium.

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Startup utility player / guy who asks too many questions / usually excited. Vices include photo books and donuts. Cofounder at @JobPortraits