And on the first day God made everything perfect, the end. Then the good guy killed the bad guy on his first try, the end. They quickly and easily got everything they ever wanted without much effort, the end. And then everything went perfectly according to plan, the end.
We all look at these one sentence stories and know they’re fake. We understand that’s not reality. We know that real life is filled with struggle, hardship, unknowns, frustration, personal weaknesses, etc. Yet we hope our design process goes like the one sentence story. We often expect to sit down and start nudging pixels perfectly into place without any resistance or struggle at all. We hope we’ll stumble onto the story the artwork needs to tell, all while trying to skip steps in the story of the artwork’s creation.
If we want to tell stories with our art, we need to savor the process of creating the art itself. Our artwork, like any good story, requires development, exploration, and seemingly endless editing. Even the writing of a story requires a story of its own.
The desire to discover the thing behind the thing is why we geek out at the extra features and behind-the-scenes footage of our favorite movies, or why we love watching time-lapse screen captures of people creating in Photoshop/Illustrator, or even watching VFX breakdowns. We crave to know the story behind the story, because we know the story of creating contributed to the final product we experienced. Enjoy the process—savor it with all its struggles included. The struggle and pursuit of a great idea is often what leads to the idea being worth giving attention to.
For example, once I’ve made my peace with the fact that my art needs a story of its own, only then can I begin to take a step back and shape the story I want to tell. I have to figure out the one emotion/mood/experience/feeling/idea that I want to communicate, and then everything else needs to support/build toward that individual point.
Often, how this plays out is through my desire to add a sense of theater to my artwork. My hope is that as someone explores the artwork, there are visual layers of reveal that enhance the overall experience. This can be through lighting, composition, extra details off to one corner that you didn’t notice at first, some hidden imagery or repeating pattern that was first perceived as a texture but actually makes more sense in context, color palate, medium, etc. My goal is for people to discover more as they stare longer and lean in.
The more you study the idea of narrative elements in your artwork, the more you discover how much of a role each element can play. However in the same way that you don’t use every feature in Photoshop in every design (and if you do stop that), you need to figure out which are appropriate to communicate your story. The more you create in this way, the more you’ll begin to learn which elements distract and which ones support by adding depth and discovery.
On the flip side, sometimes the idea isn’t that complex. Sometimes the story doesn’t benefit from narrative theatre, but demands a laser focus. Isolation, focal-attention, and simplicity can tell a story of their own. They whisper “you’re not going to want to miss this” by only showing you one thing. Often, people confuse simplicity with a lack of design effort. But the irony is that simplicity is often more difficult to achieve. How do you tell a story with only minimal elements? Typically, it’s not about how much you can add, but how much you can take away and communicate the idea clearly.
Dancing on the line of clear communication and indulgent artwork is the inner-battle of every artist and designer. If everyone knew how to find the perfect balance, then everyone would be an artist/designer. It’s a skill that must be learned and honed over time. Things worth doing take time, and those who can embrace that the process is as important as the final product are the ones we look to as our artistic heroes. Savor the hardship, the frustration, and the struggle because they are the process of discovery that will lead you to the story you’re called to tell.
If you want to tell stories with your art, you have to savor the story and process necessary to create the art itself.