Storytelling On The Web

Reading up on communication strategies there is no escaping the word storytelling. Storytelling seems to be a miracle cure for all purposes.

I disagree. Storytelling is a powerful tool when applied judiciously, and it just so happens that it is all the more compelling when it is being genuine1. But it does not work equally well in all contexts.

More importantly, the word storytelling is often being thrown around even when there is an abject failure of telling a story. Dropping pop culture references to famous stories does not magically transform a list of things to do into a story.2

While I am currently working in an environment where storytelling is the native art form, I do appreciate attempts to tell a good story in all kinds of settings. Which is why I would encourage you to dig deeper into the question what makes a story.

I’ve written in more detail about the theory of storytelling as applied to a business context, especially for presentations, over at the blog of BrightCarbon. There’s more about the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing, too. So please check it out.3

Storytelling & the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing

  1. Which unfortunately turns into an arms race of bogus authenticity attempts in marketing if people confuse telling a genuine story with putting on a show. Audiences don’t take kindly to finding out when they are being played, though. ↩︎

  2. In fact, there is a lack of storytelling even in storytelling media, if we take a closer look at some inane set-piece driven Hollywood specs or remember the mind numbing level grinding in generic fetch quest RPG-excuses. ↩︎

  3. And on a side note: I’ve made embedding HTML5 animations via iframe semi-responsive on Tumblr. That’s going to come in handy, pulling animations into responsive iframes in the future. Serious storytelling potential with interconnected narratives. I just cheated a little bit with the padding on the expanding container div set to 70%, if you look closely on resizing your browser window. ↩︎

Intrinsic Knowledge, The Cubicle And Storytelling

You should know that for all my obsession with theory and methodology I very much value the kind of knowledge that comes with experience. The problem with that kind of knowledge, however, is that it is usually locked into the brain of the person who has accumulated said experience.

This is rather unfortunate, because it is really difficult for us to share information that we use instinctively. Usually we don’t even know how to access that information, although it subconsciously helps us make better decisions. Such kind of knowledge may be called intrinsic knowledge when it is opaque to our rational thinking, like our knowledge of how to walk without falling down.1 It may also be called idiosyncratic knowledge when it is less opaque, but still tied to the individual experience of the person possessing it.

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Storytelling is a powerful tool to manage complexity. This is because you can attach pieces of unfamiliar information to a structure that is familiar to your audience. For the effect to work, then, it should be clear that you actually need to study what kind of narrative structures allow for embedding of information, and which kind of narrative among those structures is one that your audience gets. There is good reason for a canonical systematicity of narrative structures, but be aware that such systems need not transfer across all audiences alike.

Anyway, I just meant to drop you a few words of wisdom my Grandfather gave me:

Use proper tools!

Ironically Gramps did not have the proper tools for video recording, but then again, how else would his grandkids learn proper shaving technique?


For everything that is right about this stunning blend of visualization techniques I cannot look past the glaring cock up of not labeling the axes properly.

Still, there is so much to learn from bringing together different approaches to visualization. In this video we have innovative mapping techniques1 that by themselves blur the boundary between photography (or cinematography in this case) and data visualization. We have layers of information that work in unison to convey an overarching theme. Quantitative information of accumulation over time is superimposed on the mapping visualization. We have a narrative structure provided by the voiceover that brings yet another stream of data to the piece.

The next step in the evolution of visualization as I see it would be to make the choices that seem artistically motivated and somewhat arbitrary in this video a matter of conscious translation from raw data into accessible representations of complex knowledge structures. We have yet to find a robust methodical solution to the question just how much information may be simultaneously conveyed through the visual and the acoustic channel. Furthermore we need to establish which kind of data should be directed where, when we are trying to create rich visualizations. As ever, we are faced with fighting complexity.

I find this video quite reminiscent of the kinds of solutions that augmented reality affords us with when trying to overlay information inputs. Referring back to the fine line between photography and data visualization, we will need to reassess our ideas about visualization when our tools start mimicking reality in the way they present us data about it2.

  1. The author of the original rendering of the globe that went into the video did various map experiments to illustrate the Anthropocene, showing several features of our global civilization: cities, built environment, transmission lines, pipelines, main paved and unpaved roads and railways. ↩︎

  2. To make no mention of how to incorporate narrative structures as meaningful elements into visualizations. That topic is even more imminent and warrants some in depth consideration. Hopefully I’ll get around to it soon. ↩︎

Periodic Table of Storytelling by *ComputerSherpa
Skeuomorphism continues to be a topic in IxD and web design circles. I think this merits revisiting the phenomenon, if only briefly, to discuss how it applies to visualization. In my previous article...

Periodic Table of Storytelling by *ComputerSherpa

Skeuomorphism continues to be a topic in IxD and web design circles. I think this merits revisiting the phenomenon, if only briefly, to discuss how it applies to visualization. In my previous article I defined the phenomenon thusly:

Skeuomorphism in its essence is a design cue or pattern that is nonessential for the functionality of a design. However, it is reminiscent of a former design, where it originally was essential.

Now, instead of furniture or web apps, I’d like to consider how such patterns translate into a visualization context. The example of the periodic table seems a great fit for a quick demonstration.

The structure and alignment of the elements in this periodic table about story tropes tells us nothing about their relation to each other. Both the position of the groups from and the position of the elements within each group are arbitrary. Hence the paradigm in which the information is arranged is nonfunctional when we compare it to the periodic table of elements. There we can infer the atomic number of elements from their position within the paradigm. The original table shows us the properties of chemical elements and the relations between those properties.

In our example about story tropes the structure is merely a decorative element. It is a lot of fun, though. The table has appeal that it would not have, were it not for the skeuomorphic reference to the iconic original.

Is it possible to make a functional appropriation of the periodic table? Alessio Corti says yes. There at least should be a periodic table of mathematical shapes. But that’s besides the point.

The lesson for visualization in its broad sense, encompassing data crunching as well as explanatory diagrams, is that even nonfunctional elements can be meaningful. They enrich the data with a frame of reference. You can communicate the atomic properties of narratives through the metaphor that the periodic table invokes. Create molecular narrative structures out of the elements. Thus, the decoration becomes a narrative of its own to guide your exploration of data.

(via Speakersjourney)