The web has changed the way we tell stories, and today, the modern newsroom is an increasingly visual place.
The amount of information and data we’re exposed to on a daily basis can feel overwhelming. Whether it’s stats on global pandemics, the impact of climate change, or election results, we often need help to make sense of the finer details. Visual journalism can transform complex concepts and stories into accessible and engaging narratives, and encourage us not only to keep reading, but share the information with others, too.
When it comes to digital storytelling, words are no longer enough. If you want to create compelling content that can keep pace with modern readership expectations and outshine the competition, you need to understand the power of visual journalism.
What is Visual Journalism?
Ever since digital storytelling took over from print media back in the late ‘90s, visual journalism has been changing the way we seek out, consume, and understand news. Today, most people get their news from social media, and that fact, combined with the narrowing of global attention spans, has meant that content creators have been forced to think of new ways to help readers understand sophisticated topics in shorter amounts of time.
Visual journalism in and of itself isn’t a new concept. According to the Open School of Journalism, using visuals in journalism has been popular since the late 1800s — and the famous phrase: “a picture is worth a thousand words” was used frequently in the US press from the 1920s. It’s the evolution of technology that ultimately defines the type of visual storytelling that’s possible today, from the no-code web creation platforms we use to build it, to the devices and platforms our audiences use to consume it.
“Rich” digital media has allowed publishers to unshackle themselves from the limitations of print and embrace new, visually dynamic ways of telling stories. Whether it’s using animated charts, interactive maps, videos, or 3D elements, there are many ways you can make complex stories easier and more enjoyable to consume. Using these types of elements also allows readers to have a deeper, more meaningful connection with the story, and to feel immersed and involved in your narrative.
The Impact of Visual Journalism on Storytelling
Visual journalism encapsulates the narrative technique of “show, don’t tell”. Not only does it look far more appealing than walls of texts, it also leverages a serious cognitive advantage; humans are visual creatures, and around half our brain is involved in visual processing. Good visual journalism can give audiences an immediate and profound impression, cutting through the heft of a convoluted story to get straight to the point.
While it was the world of news and media that first utilized the power of visual journalism, it didn’t take long for digital marketers to catch on, and today visual journalism is used as much for brand marketing as for reporting news. Whatever the true purpose of visual journalism, it’s an excellent way to turn complex information into captivating, accessible stories with compelling narratives.
Some of the most popular visual design techniques that are currently used in journalism include:
If you want to instantly breathe life into a digital story, animation is a great way to do so. From Lottie animations to animated text, movement is an incredibly effective way of grabbing your audience’s attention, highlighting key points, and keeping people engaged. Animation can bring a sense of magic to a story.
One of the most prominent visual journalism design techniques is scrollytelling — thanks in part to the astonishing success of editorials from publishers like New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Scrollytelling incorporates elements of interactivity and motion to create captivating cinematic narratives that keep audiences reading. This can involve anything from snippets of text drifting over video backgrounds, to illustrations, typography, audio and graphics all bursting to life on scroll. Not only does this encourage readers to keep scrolling, but it also allows you to carefully pace the flow of your content.
If you’re looking to make complicated data easy to understand, the best visual journalism design technique is data visualization. From pandemics to wars to scientific discoveries, recent news stories are packed with complicated facts and figures, and things like interactive maps, charts, and infographics are great ways to help audiences process abstract data in a way that is more concrete and meaningful.
Good visual journalism can give audiences an immediate and profound impression, cutting through the heft of a convoluted story to get straight to the point.
Visual Journalism Design Best Practices
Keen to use visual journalism to enhance your digital stories? Before you start creating visual content, it’s best to familiarize yourself with some visual journalism best practices.
Plan the Visual Content from the Very Start
When it comes to visual journalism, it’s important to create visuals that are relevant to the specific story you’re telling, rather than looking for visuals that “fit” once you’re done. Today, design is just as important as the content itself, and visuals should never be an afterthought. From the moment you sit down to map out the story you want to tell, consider how you want to visually communicate each key point, to ensure copy and visuals are perfectly aligned.
Create Balance Between Words and Images
Creating a digital story shouldn’t seem like a competition between visual and written language. The power of visual journalism lies in finding the right balance between words and images, and knowing how to use rich visual media to make your story more cohesive and immersive.
It’s important not to create visual content for the sake of it, just to impress readers. If you use too many visuals, you don’t only run the risk of overwhelming your audience, you also risk undermining the power of your other visual content.
Keep Visual Styles Consistent
The best examples of visual journalism tend to have one thing in common: they keep a consistent visual style. Effective visual journalism isn’t about shoehorning as many different forms of visual media into your story as you can — it’s about ensuring that the visuals align with the story and enhance it. If you don’t need to create a zoom effect on an image or add a hover animation on text, don’t. Overwhelming content is a big turn off for most readers.
Check out our list of visual storytelling tools for creating captivating and informative visual narratives.
Examples of Visual Journalism
Theory covered, let’s look at some examples of effective visual journalism in action. We’ve compiled a few of our favorite pieces to show how effective and versatile visual storytelling can be.
Visual journalism is most powerful when visuals simplify complex stories or concepts, and that’s exactly what Canadian environmental organization Hakai Institute has achieved in their Vev-built journalistic feature “The Autonomous Ocean”.
The Autonomous Ocean tells the story of an autonomous sea glider robot named Eva, who’s on a research mission when she gets into trouble. While some aspects of this story might be hard for the layperson to understand, Hakai uses media to break up the text and make this long-form editorial accessible, as well as to highlight the work they actually do and the risks they face.
The story opens with a scrollytelling video section, with bold text submerged deep under water on a looped video background. This dark, mysterious visual instantly pulls the reader into the narrative, and using several scrollytelling techniques, the story unfolds.
The importance of the mission is highlighted not just through language — “the race is on to recover Eva before she sinks, taking her data” — but through the use of archival photographs and illustrations, where we learn about the dangerous history of ocean sampling. Since the rise of ocean tech, things look very different, and we can learn about modern robot gliders by playing with an interactive illustration.
The feature uses a multitude of visual journalism design techniques, including images, interactive maps, scrollytelling, videos, and interactive illustrations. Even though this is such a long-form, technical piece, the use of media never feels arbitrary. Each visual helps the reader connect with the story — from the world’s first video caught from within a Category 4 hurricane, to images of the scientists themselves which humanizes the research mission.
Message Lab for ServiceNow
Visual journalism isn’t only about clarifying complex concepts and helping viewers digest facts and figures; it’s also a seriously effective way to keep audiences interested in what could otherwise be rather dry, demanding content. ServiceNow’s The Sustainability Advantage is a great example of this in action.
Built in Vev by Message Lab, this report is visually appealing, interactive, and dynamic from start to finish. Just like the example from Hakai, this piece also uses a variety of visual design techniques, from animated charts and scrollytelling, to interactive infographics and snappy scroll-triggered animations.
Since this report is so data-heavy, it’s important for the key statistics to shine through, and to bring facts and figures to life in new ways. Service Now have achieved just that, and we’re particularly big fans of their animated chart element which fades and grows as you scroll, drip-feeding crucial parts of the narrative.
This piece is also laden with enjoyable interactions that reward you for exploring in more depth. Hovering over images triggers text boxes with additional information to pop up, eye-catching animations guide attention to crucial information, and interactive charts and graphs unfurl to highlight essential data.
D2 is a prestigious Norwegian magazine that covers a wide range of cultural, art, and lifestyle-related topics, and its 2022 “Top 30 under 30” report made in Vev is an excellent example of visual journalism — and a great example of why the publication has been internationally recognized for outstanding design.
This report uses different forms of visual media to instantly draw you in — from the engaging 3D visuals at the top of the page, to the scrollytelling touches and interactive images. This is a highly visual report, where the bulk of the text is only revealed when the reader clicks through, so the content still looks clean, not cluttered.
When using 3D elements in visual journalism, it’s important to be subtle and not overwhelm your audience with too many spinning, rotating images. The way D2 has incorporated 3D web design is a perfect example of minimalism: the interactive 3D animated globe at the very beginning highlights those featured in the report, and the clickable labels allow you to learn more about the faces you’re most interested in right from the start.
Visual journalism isn’t just about conveying complex data, or making dry stats seem interesting — it’s also a powerful way to tell deeply personal, moving stories. If you want a reader to connect with a story, and for the narrative to really resonate with them, what better way than to immerse them in multi-sensory digital media?
New Zealand journalist John Campbell’s Vev-built essay "From Egmont to Taranaki" is a perfect example of how visual journalism can be used to “show, not tell”. The essay is a touching tribute to a friend and travel companion who passed away, and aside from the moving words themselves, this evocative story is beautifully enhanced by visual media.
Though this is a long-form piece, it’s studded with engaging photos, illustrations, and videos, which diversifies the reader experience and encourages you to keep scrolling. Audio is used to great effect too: snippets from a podcast, narrated by John Campbell himself, brings another dimension to the story, fostering a more personal connection to the author.
The story is also a homage to New Zealand history, Maori culture, and the joy of travel. Vev’s pre-built Scrollytelling image sections are used throughout, displaying the diversity of Campbell’s travel experiences. Full-size color photos of people and scenes allow you to put faces to the names mentioned, again strengthening attachment to the story.
Data visualization is used to great effect, particularly for highlighting some of the essay’s more somber points. Animated number counters underscore the injustice the indigenous New Zealand people endured — the author, for example, makes it impossible to ignore the “1,199,622 acres” of Māori land. While this is a long essay composed of multiple chapters, reading it is a seamless, gripping experience, and it’s a great example of how visual journalism can be a multi-sensory experience.
How to Build Engaging Visual Journalism
Bringing immersive video, animations, interactivity, and data visualizations to your stories no longer requires a huge budget, timeline, and developer resource. With Vev’s pre-coded visual storytelling design components and animation tools, world-class publishers are already scaling stunning visual journalism in-house—without writing a single line of code.