Visual Storytelling

Visual Storytelling

PhD course, 6 credits, fall 2021

Creating an engaging and effective visualization is only partly a question of mastering the technology. Another important part is to decide what story to tell and how to tell it. This PhD course provides basic concepts and methods in visual communication with a focus on narrative aspects. In the final part of the course, these concepts and methods are applied in a communication-oriented visualization design team project using the state-of-the-art visualization environments available at Campus Norrköping.

This course is sponsored by SeRC.



To be eligible for the course, you need to either have a background in visualization technology or visual computing, or work in a domain where visualization is needed and wanted. Admission is by application only (see below); get in touch with the course organizers if you consider applying.

Expected learning outcomes

  • Familiarity with basic concepts of visual storytelling.
  • Familiarity with basic techniques of communication-oriented visual design.
  • Familiarity with communicative properties of representative visualization technologies.
  • Experience of a communication-oriented visual design process.


Visual storytelling:

  • Narrativity, narrative structure, dramaturgical structure
  • Temporal and spatial narrative structures
  • Linear and interactive narrative structures
  • Visual representation – visual rhetorics, connotative and denotative meaning
  • The role of audio in visual storytelling

Communication-oriented visual design:

  • Audience, message, effect
  • Iterative design process including intention, ideation, detailing and evaluation
  • Communicative intention techniques: personas, experiential qualities, communicative effects
  • Ideation techniques: mood boards, brainstorming, bodystorming, concept synthesis and assessment, etc.
  • Detailing (“prototyping”) techniques: synopsis, text scenario, user journey, sketch, storyboard, static comp, photo storyboard, enactment, video scenario, etc.
  • Evaluation techniques: usability testing, collaborative exploration, think-aloud, prompted recall, Wizard of Oz.
  • Professional visual storytelling practices

Experiential analysis of the communicative properties of more or less immersive visualization environments: full-dome, 360 wall, large wall, HMD VR, multiuser touch table, handheld AR.


The course consists of three parts.

The first part is a series of sessions (lectures, seminars, workshops, etc) introducing the basic concepts of visual storytelling and communication-oriented visual design. The sessions are focused on overview, enabling the student to identify and learn more about specific concepts and techniques as called for in the specific project (i.e., the third part of the course).

The second part is a series of studies of the visualization environments available at Campus Norrköping, each involving an analysis of its salient communicative properties from a user-experience point of view. This part ends with a plenary session where the insights are summarized and collated.

The third and final part is team project pulling together the previous parts. Each team defines a brief for a communication-oriented visual design project, ideally drawing on ongoing research represented in the team. The team then executes a communication-oriented visual design project under supervision, involving at least the following phases: identify communicative intention, ideate, synthesize at least three concepts, select one of them, detail a partial prototype, evaluate concept and prototype relative to communicative intention, revise concept and prototype, present concept and prototype. The expected deliverable of the project is a partially grounded concept for a production in one or more of the visualization environments available at Campus Norrköping.

In terms of scheduling, the first and second parts overlap and run in parallel on location in Norrköping in the second half of August. The third part – the project – starts in September 2021 with team formation, ideally creating multidisciplinary teams (depending on the backgrounds of the participants). The team formation may be based on availability of good project ideas. The first step of the team’s work is to develop a project brief specifying a topic, a communicative purpose and an analysis of which visualization environments to focus on and why. Each team is assigned a process supervisor with suitable competence for the team’s brief. Moreover, communication design teachers and visualization technology specialists serve as resources for all teams. The project runs for the remainder of the fall 2021, with a final presentation tentatively scheduled for mid-January 2022.

Proposed schedule for parts 1-2

Disclaimer: If the pandemic restrictions allow for campus teaching and travel after the summer, we are planning to teach the first two parts of the course in an intensive format on location in Norrköping. Here is a tentative schedule for those parts.

Suggested default time slots are 9.15-12 (AM) and 13.15-16 (PM). Slots adjacent to weekends are left empty to facilitate some travel needs. Normal text refers to taught sessions, italics & teal-colored are self-guided.

Aug 16 Course introduction. Individual study, preparation.
Aug 17 9:15-11. Foundations of storytelling.
11:15-12. Storytelling in classical visual communication.
Individual study, preparation.
Aug 18 Interactive narrative. Storytelling in interaction design and information design. Audiovisual narrative. Individual study, preparation.
Aug 19 Foundations of communication-oriented visual design. Foundations of communication-oriented visual design, cont.
Aug 20 Visual communication in education.
Aug 23 Introduction to experiential analysis of visualization environments. Group formation. Groupwork, preparation.
Aug 24 Introduction to HMD VR and handheld AR. Introduction to SIMlab.
Aug 25 The concept of Exploranation. Introduction to dome and touch tables. Introduction to the Decision Arena, VR Arena.
Aug 26 Groupwork on analysis, presentation preparation. Seminar. Group presentations, discussions.
Aug 27 Introduction to part 3 (projects). Bootstrapping project briefs, team formation (process continues remotely).

Course Material

Foundations of storytelling

Storytelling in classical visual communication

Audiovisual narrative

For the session Audiovisual narrative on Wednesday August 18, please watch the film at this link:

The Password has been sent out via email.

While watching the film, reflect on what the “message” of the film is. How is this message narrated? What storytelling elements are used to narrate this? How do these elements work together, relate to each other, or contrast to one other?

After the sessions Foundations of storytelling and Storytelling in classical visual communication on Tuesday August 17, you might also reflect upon:

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What type of narrative structure are used?
  • What is the theme or moral of the story?
  • What roles have the camera scenic, the camera shots, the editing, the sounds, and the music?
  • How is the visual flow used and developed for the narration?
  • Is the storytelling linear, semi-linear, or non-linear?
  • What form elements and principles are used?
  • What semiotics are part of the narration?

Interactive narrative

Visual storytelling applied to visualization

It may be helpful to see how other scholars have applied concepts from classical storytelling to the field of visualization. Here are a couple of articles that contribute to such connections. They also provide reference lists that may be useful for your own further study. It is notable that most of the literature seems to focus on information visualization as opposed to scientific visualization, but the reasoning used particularly in Segel and Heer (2010) should be quite broadly applicable.

  1. Segel, E., Heer, J. (2010). Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data. IEEE Trans. Visualization and Computer Graphics 16(6):1139-1148. The authors analyze a broad collection of visualizations using a framework of classical storytelling concepts and constructs, showing the feasibility of such an approach and highlight some white spots in the emerging design space that may warrant further exploration. pdf
  2. Gray, J. (2020). The data epic: Visualization practices for narrating life and death at a distance. In Engebretsen, M., Kennedy, H. (eds.) Data Visualization in Society. Amsterdam University Press. This is a case study based on two works of what the author calls “cinematic data visualization”, and it may be inspirational in particular for those of you who think about the problems of visualizing scale. In any case, it provides two fine examples of classical storytelling concepts applied to visualization. pdf

Foundations of communication-oriented visual design

Visual communication in education

Experiential analysis of visualization environments

Part 3: The project


Active participation in the first and second parts of the course. Adequate contribution to team project demonstrating the fulfillment of the expected learning outcomes.


PhD students who are interested in taking the course need to get in touch with one of the course organizers. If you are not already familiar to the course organizers, please provide a résumé and a brief motivation for your interest in the course. Attendance is capped at 20 participants due to the limited availability of the visualization environments used in the course. Please register your interest to participate no later than March 31, 2021; notification of admission will be given no later than April 15.


The course organizers are Ingrid Hotz (scientific visualization) and Jonas Löwgren (interaction and information design). We look forward to discussing your eligibility and answering any other questions you might have concerning the course.

Ingrid Hotz,, +46 11 36 34 62

Jonas Löwgren,, +46 11 36 36 54