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Visual design in ethical storytelling

Ethical storytelling isn't only about how you gather information and craft words. Your visual design choices are equally powerful in supporting (or undermining) your efforts to represent story contributors and their communities with respect and dignity.

Image of collage artwork featuring a large eye over a caucasian face

Sharing personal stories of the people and communities you serve is one of the most effective ways to connect with your supporters. In the past, nonprofits have tried to make these stories compelling by inspiring a sense of pity and desperation, presenting the recipient as a passive, helpless victim in need of rescue by the donor. We’ve all seen the ads featuring wide-eyed, dirt-smeared, tearful children begging for just a few cents so they can eat. Poverty porn like this relies on exploiting people’s trauma and positioning the donor as the savior to create the emotional hook to bring in donation dollars.

Unethical storytelling can show up in subtler ways, too. Like when a white editor “polishes” (strips) out the ethnic uniqueness of language in a contributor’s story. Or when a survivor is made to feel obligated (or feels they owe it to the organization) to provide their story even when they’re uncomfortable doing so.

Unethical storytelling:

  • creates a feeling of pity, distance and otherness that sets up a one-way power imbalance
  • relies on trauma and/or poverty porn to create the emotional hook
  • reinforces stereotypes and common assumptions
  • presents the story contributor as a poor, helpless victim passively waiting for rescue charity from above
  • centers the story around the donor and/or organization as the savior the story contributor depends on to escape disaster
  • is presented without the consent of the story contributor
  • provides no value to the contributor in exchange for their experience
  • leaves the story contributor feeling exploited, misrepresented and demeaned

Times are changing

Thankfully, nonprofits are moving away from exploitive fundraising like this in favor of a more ethical storytelling approach—one based on consent and respect for the dignity of the people you’re serving. It’s a shift from exploitation toward an empathetic representation that acknowledges help from the organization but above all celebrates the strength and resilience of the story contributor. No longer helpless victims, ethical storytelling involves collaborating with story contributors and positioning them as empowered agents of their own change.

Ethical storytelling

  • is presented with consent and collaboration from the story contributor
  • represents the story contributor as they want to be portrayed and in their own voice (not the same as how we think they’d want to be portrayed)
  • creates feelings of respect, equality, inspiration, admiration and belonging
  • respects challenges and differences in lived experience while keeping the story centered on the contributor’s progress
  • presents the contributor as the engine of their success
  • uses strength, inspiration, determination and resilience as the emotional hook
  • challenges stereotypes and common assumptions
  • provides some form of value to the story contributor in exchange for their experience (monetary or non-monetary)
  • supports the contributor after the story is released, particularly if they experience backlash for publishing their story
  • allows the story contributor to revoke consent at any time

We say “a picture is worth a thousand words” for a reason

Ethical stories aren’t told only with words—they’re often told with pictures and other visual elements as well. The words you choose are very powerful, but how you present the content visually can have as much impact as the words themselves. Specific stories are often presented as part of larger designed pieces that contain other photos and design elements. These need to align with your ethical goals as well.

Your design process should be intentional about:

Photo choice

  • Select photos that communicate their subjects’ strength, resilience, dignity, hope and progress.
  • Wherever possible, select photos that show subjects and community members actively participating in their own success.
  • Photo subjects don’t always have to be smiling and joyful, but avoid photos where the subject looks pitiful, helpless or desperate. If a photo is serious in tone, make sure it still communicates strength, hope and other positive feelings.
  • Try to use photos that are inclusive and challenge assumptions about the people you serve. (e.g. ethnicity, gender, economic status, disability)
  • Represent people from a variety of backgrounds and situations.
  • Make sure your photos are high-quality with correct resolution. Low-quality photos can reflect poorly on the subject and your organization.
  • Get consent from the story contributor for any photos used with their story, even if it’s a stock photo or not directly representative of them. Use a consent form and make sure your story contributor understands they can refuse or revoke consent for all or part of their information at any time.

Photo treatment, cropping and enhancements

  • If using filters or colorization, be careful about the mood and tone you’re creating.
  • Crop photos to focus appropriately and respectfully on the subject.
  • Be judicious about photo enhancements. It’s ok to minimally adjust photos to be flattering to the subject. However, don’t retouch photos so far that you take away the subjects’ unique characteristics, whitewash or impose values / beauty standards inappropriately.
  • If preparing photos of people of color, be careful about contrast and adjust to make sure the person’s features are expressed while keeping skin tone integrity and depth of color.
  • If producing a printed piece, there can be a lot of variability when it comes to printing darker skin tones (e.g. specific press equipment calibration, paper choice, ink saturation, etc.). Work with your professional printer to optimize these factors and flag any photos that may need special attention to help your subjects look their best.
  • If the photo is of a story contributor, be sure to get their approval of the post-processed photo. If they like your adjustments, you could offer a high-resolution copy of the final photo for them to keep as a thank-you.

Color, pattern and texture

  • Make sure your use of color is appropriate to the intended mood and tone of your piece.
  • Different colors have unexpected meanings in some cultures. Adjust accordingly depending on your audience. If your story contributor is from a particular culture, double-check with them to make sure your color choices aren’t communicating anything unintended when seen through their community’s perspective.
  • When selecting background patterns and textures, make sure they support your goals for respectful representation.

What can you do?

As communicators and designers, we’re in a unique position to reshape damaging narratives and change how donors perceive the people and communities you serve. To us, ethical storytelling is as much about content as it is about design. Want to chat about how we can help your communications get there? Drop us a line!

Photo by Mr TT via Unsplash