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Visual Narrative: Short-hand Design Cues

How does one create a visual experience for an audience, and within seconds, detail the logic of the world?


There are challenges to constructing a world from scratch. As designers we often use our 'real' world to influence the design and create short-hand visuals to communicate with the audience. For example, a red light will often mean stop, bad or danger. If we assign red to an alien world, we can quickly communicate to an audience that red equals bad or danger, and thus create a short-hand visual cue to assist the audience in ‘reading’ the design. A great example of this is the colour of the lightsabers in Star Wars. This is an incredibly swift way to cue in an audience about the nature of a character, by giving them either blue or red, to signify if they are either good or bad.

Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fight using lightsabers

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Rey and Kylo battle using lightsabers


However, it is not only in colour do we rely on these short-hand cues. There are shapes, symbols, textures, graphics and environments that all create cues a make-believe world. It’s the silhouettes of the buildings, shapes of cities, and geometric symbols that make these worlds familiar to an audience. Take for example the skyline from Metropolis (1927). How recognisable are those never ending skyscrapers that reach taller than the parameters of the camera lens? Fifth Element (1997) utilises a similar design aesthetic for it’s sci-fi city, thus reinstating the vast metropolitan and geometric skylines of these futuristic worlds. By reinforcing a ‘trope’ or ‘stereotype’, designers are generating short-hand cues for emerging designs to build from. When we see those geometric, never-ending skylines, we instantly recognise the sci-fi city we are viewing, and the ‘logic’ of the world has been established (examples: Tron, Blade Runner, Akira and Dredd).

Metropolis (1927), Matrix (1993) and Fifth Element (1997) film posters Not only is it in these largescale formats, we are creating building blocks of visual communication. We are also in more subtle ways, creating subtext and nuance for characters and an insight into the backgrounds for a particular person. The first example that comes to mind is the difference of the scientist's desk in Jurassic Park (1993). Wayne Knight’s character, Nerdy is incredibly untidy, has games displayed on his computer screens, junk food scattered and mess piled around his work station. This implies the character is disorganised, and potentially dissatisfied with his work. If he is playing games on his work computers, he may be unfocused and bored. The mess may also signify someone who is less worried about a professional appearance in contrast to his co-worker, Arnold (played by Samuel L. Jackson).


Jurassic Park (1993). Nerdy's desk (played by Wayne Knight) designed by Rick Carter

Arnold’s desk is tidy, he has a few personal items adorning the top of his computer, and all the screens show work related items. This may signify a character who is focused, hardworking, and satisfied with his work. The set decoration, and the design between these two character's desks, is a fantastic way to give an overall impression through design cues. Here the design is being used to give us an insight into the personalities of the characters, and maybe foreshadow their particular behavioural habits.


Jurassic Park (1993). Arnold's desk (played by Samuel L. Jackson) designed by Rick Carter

We have only provided a few examples of how design can communicate the logic of a make-believe world. There are so many elements to a design that make the world feel complete. It relies on all the departments collaborating to ensure the world's logic is upheld. Try to articulate the 'rules' for the design you are building, and the principals of the society that inhabits your world. Whether water only flows skyward; how do the taps, and piping work? What other elements of design does it dictate? If you are able to understand the rules and systems you are putting into place, you are well on your way to building a platform for your world to grow.


Recommended Reads:

Stories Communicate the Value of Design - how storytelling separates the good from the great, by Caroline Luu (Article from UX Collective, 7th November 2020)


Storytelling in Design - Top Trends for 2021, by Alisa Taylor (Article from Vectornator, 28th May 2021)


Design is Storytelling, by Ellen Lupton (Article from Cooper Hewitt, 21st November 2017)