Every widget tells a story

Richard Wiseman - Cognitive Media

At Cognitive we’re visual thinkers, taking concepts and wrangling them into the visual medium. But we’re also visual storytellers, because you can’t make an engaging animation without a story. However many wonderful images we create, if we don’t put them together in a meaningful way all we end up with is a lot of pretty looking gobbledygook. Finding a story to thread through an animation might seem quite straightforward when we are working on RSA Animates, where experienced public speakers like #SirKenRobinson use storytelling techniques to present their thoughts. But how do we find the story in, say, a financial services widget? Well, hold onto your thinking caps, because we’re going to get a bit philosophical…

In a Q&A at the RSA with @RichardWiseman and Matthew Taylor the question was asked whether there’s a danger of there being a tyranny of narrative - that everything might get turned into a narrative even if it’s not really one at all. The answer I gave was: “But everything’s a narrative isn’t it?” And that viewpoint is fundamental to our philosophy. Everything tells a story. Yes, even a financial services widget.

Everything - aargh - Cognitive Media, animated storytelling

A good example of objects as storytellers is to be found in the #BritishMuseum project for #Radio4 ‘A History Of The World in 100 Objects’. Every object tells a story. A particular favourite of ours is number 92, the early Victorian tea set. It’s not simply that the set was owned by Queen Adelaide, but that it reveals a story of British Imperialism. Tea came from plantations in India, the sugar from the West Indies. So when Brits sat down at 4 p.m. for tea they were directly supporting the Empire. Tea drinking was a patriotic duty. Over a hundred years of conquest is brewing in that small tea set.

Victorian tea set - infographic by Cognitive Media

Ok, so hurrah! Everything tells a story. How does that help us create a whiteboard animation about a widget by next Tuesday? Like this: you see, when we are researching around the topic we discover how the widget fits into the narrative of the financial services world around it. Research is thus effectively outlining backstory, which sheds light on the character of the widget and helps us tell its tale. Yes, the widget is the hero of the saga and we treat it as a character. As we research, we also pick up plot points (facts and figures etc) that help us move the story along.

Storytelling infographic by Cognitive Media

A clear story arc is essential when writing a film, whether it’s a summer blockbuster with Robert Downey Jnr, or an explainer video about a widget from the tough side of the IT department who’s made good. Once the script has been written with the basic structure of story and character identity, that gives our illustrators and animators the chance to unpackage the in-depth story. Our images don’t simply illustrate the words but enrich them with a supporting cast and sub plots that play out as the main story is told. We reveal the true heart of the character, its motivations and its goals.

Tony Stark illustration by Cognitive Media

Now you might be thinking at this point “Are they all nuts? Do they really wander around talking about the character motivation of widgets all day?”. Of course we don’t. Everything we’ve just described is pretty much done on a subconscious level. Through our lives and education we have absorbed storytelling techniques and we naturally use these tools in our work. Digital storytelling is no different to the oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. We use the same motifs and rhythms of storytelling as the Grimm Brothers did when they collated the folk tales of central Europe.

Grimm Fairytales illustration by Cognitive Media

Does this knack of finding stories and telling them make us different to most people? No. Much as we’d love to style ourselves as story-finding super heroes, what we’re doing is a fundamentally human thing to do. Humans love stories. We are all storytellers and know a good story when we hear one. We instinctively know when a story isn’t working (that’s when we get bored, switch channels or surreptitiously start playing Candy Crush Saga under the table during a PowerPoint at work). All we do is turn that instinctive storytelling spotlight onto every aspect of a subject to make an engaging animation.

Candy Crush saga - storyboard - illustration by Cognitive Media

So that’s the story of how to turn a humble financial services widget into the hero of a film. The key is to find the story in the object and use in depth research to enrich the tale. If you have any thoughts about stories and ways to tell them please post them to our Facebook page. And now we can all live happily ever after.

Iron Man illustration by Cognitive Media