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Ethical Storytelling in Design: Seven Resources

As a designer, when I think about visualizing your brand’s values—be they inclusion, accessibility, respect, all of the above—one rule reigns supreme: Show, don’t tell. When we practice ethical storytelling in design and communications, we’re demonstrating an authentic commitment to our shared values by respecting the subjects of our stories. 

Nonprofit communicators use storytelling to demonstrate their organization’s impact, commitments, and values, but oftentimes, the subjects of those stories aren’t professionals working at the nonprofit—rather, they’re the organization’s grantees or community members. When I get an email update from a nonprofit seeking to increase education equity, I’m not reading about the nonprofit staff, I’m reading about the students. 

The way in which we share someone else’s story has real-world implications. Ethical storytelling addresses these implications, providing a framework for sharing others’ stories in a respectful, responsible, and effective manner. It focuses on elevating a subject’s lived experience, voice, and strengths to ensure that the story we tell about a person serves them—not just the storyteller. There’s been a lot of discussion about ethical storytelling in communications, but less about how it is applied in visual design. 

There’s a hidden language in visual storytelling. The images and videos we use in our communication can radically alter how people will experience your story. Certain images instinctually hold positive and negative implications. And when we practice ethical storytelling in design, our communications and our design prioritize storytelling that’s authentic, respectful, and inclusive—storytelling that emulates our organizational values. In this article, I’ve gathered tools you can use to tell those values-based stories with your design. 

Seven Resources for Practicing Ethical Storytelling in Design

Ethical Visual Storytelling for Nonprofit Brands

“In branding, you often get what you give: Respected brands are founded on respectful practices.” This insight provides an overview of ethical visual storytelling and a framework for applying the principles of ethical storytelling in visual stories. With seven criteria to consider when sharing visual stories—branding, imagery, videos—you can run through a checklist of questions to ask yourself to ensure you’re telling a visual story that empowers and emboldens your subjects. At the end, we hope you’ll gain an understanding of the building blocks for an authentic, respectful, optimistic, and culturally sensitive visual story. 

Alternatives to Vulnerability Framing 

Key to ethical storytelling in design is avoiding vulnerability framing. Vulnerability framing, as defined by the nonprofit research group FrameWorks Institute, defines people by their vulnerabilities. Vulnerability framing, “perpetuates stereotypes or weaknesses.” Some examples—showing thin children to advertise food aid—come to mind. This framing fails to consider the tenacity and resilience of stories’ subjects. In this episode on effective storytelling, FrameWorks Institute offers compelling, respectful alternatives to vulnerability framing. 

Solutions-Oriented Framing

Optimism is a foundational element of ethical storytelling. If we’re not looking forward to something, what are we working toward? There’s a practical component to optimism in storytelling—motivating your audience—but more importantly, there’s a respect paid to the subjects when your stories show that you’re visualizing the fruit of their resiliency. That’s why FrameWorks Institute champions “solutions-oriented” framing, elevating desired outcomes over current crises. These are values and principles we can share of course in our communications, but also in the images we share. 

Inclusive Images for Social Sector Communications 

Like I said, there’s a hidden language in visual storytelling. And the images we use to share our brands are a fundamental part of the visual stories we tell. The Communications Network, a group that connects nonprofit communicators, recently hosted a webinar that explores inclusive imagery to help organizations emulate their values, avoid stereotyping and unconscious biases, and source diverse imagery and photography for their brands. It even goes as far as providing a framework for goal setting that can help you disrupt unconscious bias to prioritize inclusive imagery.  

Activating Stereotypes with Brand Imagery: The Role of Viewer Political Identity 

Learning—and unlearning—is key to improving our role as the gatekeepers of ethical storytelling in design. This article unpacks the fundamentals of the stereotypes we unconsciously activate with our brands. A key learning, for me, was the potential to perpetuate unjust biases in archetypes, not just stereotypes: “Although archetypes can sometimes be helpful, you need to be careful with both archetypes and stereotypes in your nonprofit brand visual storytelling. Visual storytelling can—often unconsciously—perpetuate harmful stereotypes or biases.” The article explores the harmful stereotypes or archetypes in terms of a person’s age, race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, or religion.

The Dangers of Poverty Porn

“A photograph never lies about the photographer,” – retired photographer, Chester Higgins Jr. 

“Poverty porn,” for those unfamiliar, is the use of exploitative images of people living in poverty to further the goals of the person or organization sharing the image. This article puts it perfectly when it says that the practice is “a master class in what not to do.” Poverty porn fails to elevate the strength and resiliency of people and instead centers a person’s deficits in order to meet the goals of the person or organization sharing the story. Of course, there’s a balance, and this article provides a great overview and framework for thinking about that balance. I especially loved Justin Forsyth’s, CEO of Save the Children UK, way of framing this: “Our image guidelines ensure all our communications reflect the truth, balancing the huge child suffering we witness with stories of hope and progress.”

Web Accessibility Initiative Images Tips and Tricks

Once you’ve done the work—and it is work—to ensure that your images are inclusive, don’t perpetuate biases, and elevate a person’s lived experiences, a key part of living up to your values in your design is ensuring that your assets are accessible to people with varying degrees of visual abilities or impairments. This web accessibility resource provides helpful tips and tricks for you and your team to assess the more technical side of inclusivity for your imagery, and if you use Figma to design, we’ve gathered plug-ins to help you advance inclusive design. 

Closing Thoughts:

Ethical storytelling in design is an excellent way to “show” you value asset-framing, inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and more. If you’re interested in exploring your brand and the stories you tell in your design, reach out to us to learn more about how we can build a brand that’s authentic, optimistic, and respectful. 

About the Author

Doug Knapton

Doug Knapton

Doug is a visual and UX designer who is passionate about creating positive brand experiences for mission-based businesses and nonprofits. He specializes in interactive data visualization, mobile design optimization, and long-form editorial storytelling. After graduating with a BFA in Graphic Design from Pratt Institute in 2015, Doug joined TIME, where he specialized in creating long-form digital experiences and cross-brand native advertising campaigns. At Constructive, Doug collaborates with clients to create user-centric UX and visual design—working closely with team leads to ensure that design execution is aligned with strategic priorities. In his free time, he enjoys illustrating absurd compositions.

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