Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Visual Storytelling: Lessons from Slide:ology

By Shelley A. Gable

In a recent post on this blog, I provided A Formula for Storytelling in eLearning. This post focuses on telling a story through a better use of visuals.

I tend to be a very text-oriented person. When an article offers a graphic to illustrate a concept, I'll glance at the graphic but focus on the text.

However, I also understand that a graphic is a preferred focal point for many people. So with that in mind, I try to illustrate concepts, relationships, processes, etc. within eLearning projects whenever possible. But for me, representing these things visually requires a concerted effort.

That said, when a colleague recommended the book Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte as a source of visual design ideas, I was quick to check it out.

And I'm glad I did.

First of all, Duarte practices what she preaches. The book is a package of eye candy that inspires and informs. In just flipping through its glossy pages, I spotted several slide examples with ideas I went on to borrow for my own projects.

But amid the dazzling images is practical design principles and good advice. Here are my top four learnings from the book...

  1. Diagrams. There is a diagram out there for just about any type of message you need to convey. Enclosed clusters, influence, inner workings...whatever it is, chapter 3 of the book has a diagram type to illustrate it. I've dipped into a few of these since getting my hands on the book.

  2. People proximity. Chapter 6 touches on the concept of space proximity in design, and a page is dedicated specifically to the placement of people on a slide. For example, if you have two people on a slide, the one closer to the edge of the slide may be perceived as weaker than the one closer to the center. The page offers potential interpretations for seven different people arrangements.

  3. Whitespace is critical. I think that this is one of those things that most of us know, but that many of us often forget. Also addressed in chapter 6, Duarte offers some factors to consider when trying to figure out how to declutter a slide.

  4. Visual storytelling. I confess, I stole this clever label from the book. Duarte talks about visual storytelling in the book's introduction, and then she does it throughout the book. Every major principle in the book is demonstrated through simple illustrations and case studies. You can get the basic gist of the book's major principles just by paging through the images.

Admittedly, many of these are not earth-shattering ideas. My graphic designer friends would probably tell me that these ideas are as basic as they get. But for someone like me, the basics are exactly what I need.

I should probably clarify that this book is about presentations (not eLearning specifically), and it assumes that they'll be delivered by a person. That said, there is advice in the book that wouldn't be as productive for eLearning, and might not even be cost-effective in some situations. For instance...

  1. For the sake of being realistic, most of the case study slides in the book are beyond what I would produce. I lack the technical expertise (and let's admit it - time) to produce the stunning images showcased in the book. For certain profile projects, I would need to work with a graphic designer to produce images like that; most typical projects sprout from a simpler template.

  2. A recurring theme throughout the book is minimalism. This makes perfect sense if your slide is a backdrop for an in-person presentation. While the minimalist principle may be useful for certain effects within eLearning, it seems to me like we should generally put more content on a slide than what's typically demonstrated in the book.

In raving about how this book helped inspire visual design in my eLearning, I realize that I should be sharing my own newly developed masterpieces. Unfortunately, I don't have any that I can share (the downside of working with proprietary content and non-disclosure agreements!).

But I'm guessing that some of you reading this already employ these design principles. So if you have something you can share, please leave a comment with a brief explanation and a link. Maybe your good work will inspire visual storytelling in others!


  1. Hi Shelley,
    I'm a big fan of slideology too, so your post get a 'yaay' from me!
    I don't think however, that the case study slides should be beyond you. I'm no graphic designer, but with the basics of typography and the power to find free images, I've achieved quite a lot with my presentations.
    Very recently I put up a presentation on 'Visual Design Basics' on slideshare. If it interests you, you can see it here. You'll notice that I've used low cost imagery to illustrate how simple techniques can make a huge difference to the visual design of your slides and elearning.
    All the best, and thanks for posting.

  2. Great book cover must have been a process to develope it??

  3. Sounds like a great resource Shelley! I plan to check it out.

  4. Great resource Shelley! Thanks, I plan to check out this book. -Cindy Walker

  5. Thanks for the comments! I really enjoyed browsing through this book, so I'm excited to see that others are interested in this too.

    Sumeet ~ Thanks for sharing your link! It really is a good demo of how to do a lot with just a little. And I really like the contrasting examples.

    3greenmetals ~ To be honest, this book was pretty easy to write a reaction to...since I found it to be such a great resource, I was eager to share it with others.

    Cindy ~ Hi! Wow - it feels like ages since we've been in touch! I'm glad you stumbled upon this...and glad to hear that you think this book might be helpful for you. Hope all is going well with you!


Thank you for your comments.