7 Quick Tips To Improve Visual Storytelling In Your Graphic Props

Giving your props a sense of function, authenticity and  history 

I love the way graphic design is used in film & tv to populate a scene and in many cases , carry vital parts of the plot. Graphic props are designed primarily to achieve a single purpose; to contribute to the storytelling of the fictional world in which they feature and to make you believe that the world you are watching is real. 

But visual storytelling in design can be achieved in many different ways. Graphic design for film employs a unique set of rules and principles to make it work.

So I'd like to share with you seven quick fire tips to help you bring storytelling in to the design and function of your graphic props.

Storytelling is everything

1. Give the prop a backstory beyond it's current function

Successful back story in graphic prop design is about imagining the life a particular prop has had before the audience  encounter it in the context of the story it features in.  A prop may be scribbled on, stained, badly cared for, have parts missing or layers of information added over time.

It may also need to contain traces of backstory for a character to discover, like a vital clue that solves a mystery or information that places the audience one step ahead of the characters in the story.

2. Reference design movements

Design doesn't sit still. It evolves from decade to decade and often visually echoes the social, political and even spiritual concerns of the time. Referencing different design movements of the past will give you a strong understanding of the period you may find yourself designing for. You can find a list of all the major design movements here

For these fictional jazz covers I referenced one of my favorite design eras of mid century modern graphic design from the 1950's which focused on clear bold elements to support visual communication and the high contrast in shapes and colours:

3. Natural ageing and wear and tear

An aged document or artifact naturally suggests the passing of time and a sense of history. Over time, paper oxidises and turns various shades of yellow. Dust, dirt and moisture stains all play their part too.

A large part of using wear, tear and ageing successfully to tell a story is to think about how a document is handled or used. If a document has been used repeatedly it is likely to show signs of aging and were and tear in localised places. For example an ID card that is flipped and held open over long periods of time might have attracted scratches, stains, wear or greasy and dirty finger marks close to the fold line. 

You can also apply rips, splits, folds and tears to paper to suggest it's treatment and importance over time.  

4. Decide on the hierarchy of information

If your prop needs to communicate something specific, then the order in which you arrange information could prove vital in how well that prop does it's job. It may only have seconds of screen time so employing techniques such as colouring, size and positioning can help to achieve the desired effect.

I designed these floppy disks for a character who has obsessive traits that include collecting analogue technology and naming all of his possessions with a Dymo tagging gun. So the character's name is the most important element of these props, created mainly in a distinctive colour that separates it from the rest of the information. 

Additional information on the disk's labels tell us that they have been re-purposed over time, creating a history or timeline of the content's and the decline of  importance to it's creator.

5. Test your prop from various distances 

Not all props enjoy a close up! Props that are designed to decorate an interior or exterior set may feature only in the background. They may not even be in focus for a lot of the time. This is where a prop acts in a supporting role so it should be tested with that in mind. 

Studying a prop from distance by placing it in a wider environment can help to determine if it is functioning correctly. Whether the shape layout or even particular colours are working in relation to the space it occupies can enhance the storytelling qualities of the prop.

6. Colour 

Graphic props will often be created in addition to the wider design of a production that may employ distinct colour palettes to evoke the  particular mood of a location or character. Color may be applied in subtle or obvious ways depending on the nature of the story.  Using colour in interesting ways can add the right kind of provenance to a prop and in turn support the emotional storytelling of a scene.

The following list,  courtesy of the  film blog nofilmschool.com perfectly illustrates the psychology behind colour:

RED – anger, passion, rage, desire, excitement, energy, speed, strength, power, heat, love, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence

PINK – love, innocence, healthy, happy, content, romantic, charming, playfulness, soft, delicate, feminine

YELLOW – wisdom, knowledge, relaxation, joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, illness, hazard

ORANGE – humor, energy, balance, warmth, enthusiasm, vibrant, expansive, flamboyant

GREEN – healing, soothing, perseverance, tenacity, self-awareness, proud, unchanging nature, environment, healthy, good luck, renewal, youth, vigour, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, inexperience, envy

BLUE – faith, spirituality, contentment, loyalty, fulfillment peace, tranquility, calm, stability, harmony, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, sky, water, cold, technology, depression

PURPLE/VIOLET – erotic, royalty, nobility, spirituality, ceremony, mysterious, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, cruelty, arrogance, mourning, power, sensitive, intimacy

BROWN – materialistic, sensation, earth, home, outdoors, reliability, comfort, endurance, stability, simplicity

BLACK – No, power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, anonymity, unhappiness, depth, style, evil, sadness, remorse, anger

WHITE – Yes, protection, love, reverence, purity, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, birth, winter, snow, good, sterility, marriage (Western cultures), death (Eastern cultures), cold, clinical, sterile

SILVER – riches, glamorous, distinguished, earthy, natural, sleek, elegant, high-tech

GOLD – precious, riches, extravagance. warm, wealth, prosperity, grandeur

7. Tell a second story to enhance the main one

Sometimes visual storytelling is purely about information that supports a fictional world in an indirect way.

We can think of a graphic prop as being similar to an editorial illustration where it's function is to visually enhance the feature it is connected to, either through symbolism, metaphor,  pattern or directly with words. Storytelling is often delivered in many layers so having a prop tell a smaller story that is not directly featured in the plot of the main story can really take world building qualities to a higher level and add greater authenticity to the design of a production.

If you would like to get started in graphic design for film, then sign up for my FREE 10 step guide below.  A 10 day email course that's packed with tips and insights to get you started creating your own graphic props. ↓↓

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