Compelling Story

Idea and Concept Development 4 Design Solutions

A compelling story, how to tell one. How to be persuasive, believable to a point that your audience feels the message. They internalize it. They relate in a personal way, not just intellectually understanding the information. Don’t get me wrong the information is extremely important. It must be accurate and true. The point here is how that information is delivered. Compelling means motivating. The message finds a balance between uniqueness and attention grabbing “wow” set within a context that is familiar to the audience in some way—that they can relate to as an individual person. Each audience member can then empathize with the situation/person in the scenario presented to them.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth—Christina’s World

To be effective/compelling in visual story telling typically requires either a very accurate and in-depth understanding of the target audience or ability to portray a first-hand personal view of a subject that is universally understood only in a general way, or both. In Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth has done the latter. Wyeth observed the actual event of a woman stricken with polio crawling across a field by her house. He has made the story more compelling by using his wife (a younger woman than Christina) as the model and altering his viewpoint, landscape and buildings in the composition.


Paul Rand—Directions Mag

Paul Rand—Directions Mag

In the Christmas, 1940 issue of Directions magazine, Paul Rand has used substitution and juxtaposition to evoke a bittersweet understanding of the reality that soldiers fighting a war far from home during the holiday season face during this normally festive time of year.


The ad campaigns for Volkswagon rely on exaggeration (above) and on a humorous take on cliché associations for each city and target audience (below).

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The French artist, JR shot portraits of 16 recent immigrants to the US, individuals whom many New Yorkers might pass by without appreciating the struggles each went through to get to the United States.

As JR explains, immigration is a subject that has intrigued him for some time. This project is an extension of an earlier project dealing with the same issue. His shadowy, life-size black-and-white portraits, printed on rough stock paper, capture something of the subjects’ penumbrous lives. The cover image features JR’s huge portrait of Elmar Aliyev, a 20-year-old waiter from Azerbaijan. The artist printed off a 50-metre-tall image of Aliyev, and pasted it onto Flatiron plaza, the pedestrian concourse in Manhattan that lies between Fifth Avenue, Broadway and East 23rd Street.


“I decided to paste him so big,” explains JR “but on the floor, so [people] would walk on him without noticing, which is what would happen anyway, because in the city everyone is in their own world.” However, JR reversed these roles when he created the final aerial image for the paper, shot from a helicopter. “I went up and photographed it from above,” he explains. “In the image that made the cover, he [Aliyev] is in the light and everyone else is just shadows, whereas [normally] he was in the shadow of everybody else.”

This canny, yet simple visual approach exemplifies JR’s attitude towards art. As he says in our interview, he prefers to “tell the story of our day, without needing to resort to titles.” “I don’t really want to mess with my work,” he goes on. “I want it to be visible to anybody.”

He still understands that everyone’s interpretation is subjective. “Each person reads a photo depending on where they come from, what they went through, what they feared,” he says. “It’s going to impact you in a different way from how it impacts me. That’s fine. The beauty of art is that it’s different; I like people to make use of my work to share their own ideas.” For more JR-style food for thought, watch the video above or read more about the New York Times work here.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––Below is an excerpt from the movie A Time to Kill—an extremely powerful example of telling a “story”. The scene illustrates a message that is delivered by defense attorney (Matthew McConaughey) to a specific audience (a jury) in such a way that it becomes personal, effective and compelling.


War Ink was borne from the minds of Chris Brown, a senior manager at Contra Costa County Library, and Jason Deitch, who is a US Army veteran, social researcher and veteran advocate. They wanted a way to recognize the sacrifices and services of veterans, and to create a bridge between the veteran and civilian communities. That kind of connection is an important step for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life. I asked Andy Pratt, executive creative director of Favorite Medium, which designed the website, to tell us: Why a site devoted to tattoos? “Tattoos are so ubiquitous in the military, and are becoming more mainstream in civilian culture, too,” he explained. “They’re also a great conversation starter, so they were a natural choice for creating this common ground.”

A different way to tell the story. How do we measure success?