When pictures really are worth a thousand words

 Illustration of Shaun Tan by Cognitive Illustrator Suzanne Mills

Illustration of Shaun Tan by Cognitive Illustrator Suzanne Mills

Our visuals reflect, embody and embellish, rather than confuse or distract.
— Suzanne Mills
 Cognitive Illustrator Suzanne Mills

Cognitive Illustrator Suzanne Mills

At Cognitive we tell stories. If you want to remember a message then storytelling is the best vehicle to do this. Our brains are far more engaged by stories than lists of facts and figures. We use images to help supercharge those messages. Images add a component to storytelling that text cannot: speed! Our eyes can 'read' images far faster than reading text alone. To help explore this concept one of our brilliant illustrators, Suzanne Mills shared her love of the graphic novel 'The Arrival' by Shaun Tan which uses images alone to unpack its story.

Suzanne: At Cognitive, our work revolves around telling stories. An animated film might be pretty, but without a clear message at it’s core, it would be empty and forgettable. When our team responds to a script, we know we’ve hit the right notes when our visuals reflect, embody and embellish, rather than confuse or distract. The narrative behind our work should shine through, not be hidden, and we’re always on the lookout to learn from masters of this skill.

Fewer examples of visualisation out there are as stunningly unique than ‘The Arrival’ by Australian illustrator Shaun Tan, a wordless comic depicting a migrant’s journey. From the start, the visuals communicate as powerfully as words – if not more. A setting is built by illustrations of a child’s drawing, hot coffee, a half-packed trunk.

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan 

An animated film might be pretty, but without a clear message at it’s core, it would be empty and forgettable.
— Suzanne Mills

Our protagonist is shown leaving his desolate family home and boarding a rickety train, then a steam ferry. When he disembarks, a series of clues hint that our protagonist might be a refugee. He attends a health inspection and interview - recognisable as immigration checks.

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

The next panels display a city full of dynamic shapes and movement. Juxtaposition between the old and new settings tell us we’re somewhere thriving and new. Tan’s next clue is given when we expect words to appear at last (e.g. shop windows, road signs) and what we see instead is this:

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

From his actions, it dawns on us is that these symbols are not just unreadable to us, but also our protagonist. He is surprised by the alien creatures that surprise us, is as baffled by the symbols as we are and struggles to communicate with the locals. Without a word, Tan puts us in this man’s shoes – we empathize with his fortunate escape, but simultaneously feel his displacement and alarm.

Another impressive aspect of  ‘The Arrival’ is how we understand the passage of time from his layout. When the protagonist is working hard or is distracted by others (e.g. starting his first job or making friends) the frames are small and condensed on the page, and the time between each panel is sped up. But when he is alone and his emotions are the focus, the panels are larger - sometimes a double-page-spread - and pull out to show the alien city environment. His sense of feeling small in an unfamiliar city is a constant reminder amidst the action of the story. Tan also uses colour, altering the warmth of his grayscale illustrations depending of the mood of the story.

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Finally, our protagonist’s family join him. We see his daughter introduce a lost-looking woman to the new land (an echo of the panel at the beginning, where a local welcomed our nervous protagonist - now his family are shown to have gained citizenship.

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Children's Books 2006 © Shaun Tan

Although Cognitive films have the luxury of scripts to help convey the message, we aim to connect with our viewers as robustly as Tan. We’re reminded of the importance of easily readable facial expressions, gestures and 'costuming' when designing characters.We do use voice-over and words in our work, but it is important that we drive the narrative with clear, concise and unambiguous drawing. By telling part of the story with characters and backgrounds alone, you can speak volumes in seconds.

The beauty of Scribe animations is they can deliver more than one information stream at a time, which means the images can be more playful and don’t have to literally translate the information text to image.

In the animated explainer video we made for BAA, the challenge we had was explaining a full day’s arrivals operations at Heathrow, the second busiest airport in the world in just three minutes.We used a number of different visual approaches to bring the story to life. We used a large geographic map of west London to Frame the location. The landscape became a character in the piece and we had fun illustrating London like a 'toy town'. Using motion graphics employing Heathrow's brand colours and our famous video-scribing technique we could direct the audiences attention to information in time with the voice-over. We used expressive characters, informative icons and symbols working in harmony with a precise voice-over.

The beauty of Scribe animations is they can deliver more than one information stream at a time, which means the images can be more playful and don't have to literally translate the information text to image. For example when we wanted to depict wind patterns over London we used a large electric fan. The weather became characters also.  Using metaphor in this way encourages the audience to understand the complex information in a familiar and enjoyable way.