3 Keys to Visual Storytelling in the Pandemic

Like seemingly everything during the pandemic, visual storytelling has required modulation and caution to continue to function as usual.  Most long-term emergencies have this effect—with the gravity of the situation comes a new standard for what is appropriate and what should be avoided in communications.  But with case studies like the National Aquarium and the arts communities of Chennai, we can see three ways to succeed in pandemic visual storytelling: ingenuity, commitment, and positivity.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, at first found itself in a discouraging situation at the onset of the pandemic.  Closed for four entire months, the team felt disconnected from the community with whom they shared the information, experiences, and joys of its habitats and animals.

Saving Pippi

A grey seal named Pippi provided a catalyst for visual storytelling and a revival of this connection.  Rescued right before the Aquarium’s closure, the team wrote that “we had no idea that her rehabilitation would be one of the most intense in the history of National Aquarium Animal Rescue.”  Yet, despite the challenges involved, “Pippi—and our team—persevered.”

Already, we can see how this story is shaping up to be the precise kind of narrative that audiences want and need during COVID-19; Pippi and the Aquarium caregivers struggling—but succeeding—to survive and thrive is exactly the kind of plausible positivity many are desperate to hear about.  So how did the National Aquarium make Pippi’s narrative visual?

The answer came through social media.  Through a five-minute Instagram video, the National Aquarium showed Pippi to the world, and let its community and followers see her before, during, and after the intensive treatment required to ready for a return to a happy marine life.

Great Messaging, Great Design

Visual design principles are well-deployed to maximize the information the audience retains from the narrative.  Perhaps the most memorable images are those that use image density to show how many physicians and caregivers were involved in Pippi’s surgical procedure. 

Crowded frames like this can send information that voiced or written language cannot—there simply exists no substitute for the visual of four people in scrubs surrounded by medical equipment, performing vital care on Pippi.  Similarly, the inverse happens near the end of the story, when Pippi is released back into the wild: it’s just Pippi and her Aquarium caregiver, and we feel the love between these creatures as Pippi is released to scooch across the sand and back into the water.

There are numerous other design principles at play in this story, but we don’t need to think about all of them to understand that the National Aquarium’s visual storytelling let the organization show its team members and their charge accomplishing the Aquarium’s mission.

Kids and Their Robots

That wasn’t the Aquarium’s only visual storytelling success of the pandemic—just ask those who participated in the WeGo Project.  Using robots to provide virtual tours, the Aquarium gave hospitalized patients the ability to visit their exhibits.  It was, in the words of Director of Brand Strategy Nabila Chami, “the opportunity to just be a kid” in the midst of a very difficult time for these children.

One doesn’t need to break down design principles to see the simple and powerful visual story such robot-led visits created for hospitalized children: the rest of the world is still there, and still beautiful.  While you might not to be able to visit it today, the people taking care of you want you to have fun and help you explore what you’ll be able to see again, soon. 

Positivity and Adaptation in Chennai

Our second case study comes from Chennai, where visual storytelling has also reflected a commitment to bringing positive messaging during the pandemic.  In Sruthi Raman’s piece “Storytelling for the soul: How the narrative artform is striking a chord during the pandemic,” the author interviews creatives in theater, writing, and hybrid storytelling forms who have adapted their approaches to not only maintain their practice but modulated their actual stories to uplift.

“Stories have always kept people going in the worst of times.  Hope was needed when we saw so much uncertainty ahead of us,” Raman quotes Arjun, co-founder of Simply Stories Chennai.  This understanding inspired he and friends to start the Home Story series, where they virtually narrated a story every day for 21 days.

Rathy, used to in-person sessions with adults and children on storytelling, reading, and puppeteering, adjusted formats as well to keep spirits high.  “Whenever we do art, I send them instruction sheets by email so the can use them outside my sessions as well,” Raman quotes the storyteller. 

Many similarly-minded visual storytellers of Chennai have noted challenges in these shifts, particularly those that come from working through a distraction-heavy medium like the internet.  Too many like Vikram Sridhar, though, “The challenge is part of the art form.  The attention span is definitely changing. but it is our responsibility and joy to make sure they are engaged till the end.” 

In other words, Chennai visual storytelling is adapting, and pushing its storytellers not just to keep delivering, but to deliver differently, and quickly adapt their new delivery format to remain successful.  It’s created a renewed engagement between audience and storyteller.

The Visual Storytelling Trinity for Pandemic Times

“We have so much pent up energy in us and storytelling is important to rekindle these emotional outbursts,” says Vikram.  Whether it’s releasing energy, showing that energy hasn’t disappeared, or giving energy to those restricted to hospital beds, successful visual storytelling during the pandemic is truly tripartite in composition: equal parts ingenuity, commitment, and positivity, as we see in the storytellers of Chennai and team members of the National Aquarium.