Visual Storytelling: A Tale of Two Cows

Visually recently published an infographic that illustrated a joke from the 1940s. The story in the joke was roughly the same as the story has always been, the main thing that changed is the illustrations helping to show the concepts in the story. But the graphic passed 76,000 views on (and almost 600,000 views across other sites) in less than 4 days, and shows no signs of slowing down. In the meantime, the same text version of the joke has a limited number of shares on social networks.


Why has the visual version been so successful?

1. It’s a great story to begin with First, let’s be honest; the joke itself is golden. It has survived through huge changes in popular culture over many decades. It is entertaining and mildly educational, and as long as people band together in groups with socioeconomic rules, some form of the joke will probably exist. But text versions of the joke have existed for a long time. Why the sudden interest in it now? 2. The visual version is easier to “consume” Visual storytelling is fun. If done well, it communicates the concepts clearly, reducing the cognitive load on the viewer. This increases their reward/effort ratio for taking the time to consume the content. This results in a happier viewer, and happy people want to share their happiness, which contributes to the viral nature of the content. 3. Its storyline is consistent… Not all “stories” are great candidates for visual storytelling, though. The key in this case is that the concept is relatively similar for each culture. There are a limited number of characters involved: cows, yourself and a third party. This means that the illustrations are all variations on each other, making it simple to compare the concepts across each iteration. 4. …and just the right amount of “simple” Stories are better candidates for visual storytelling when they have just the right level of complexity. Another factor in the success of this joke’s conversion to a visual format is the simplicity of the concepts. They can easily be illustrated with simple illustrations, and the illustrations really do make the concepts clearer than the text would have. The complexity of the piece comes from the overall aggregate, not from any individual component. Visual storytelling is not appropriate for every story, but in many cases it certainly can help the story. And it certainly can improve the share-ability of the story — in this case, particularly so.   Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on twitter @SeeingStructure

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