Storyboarding 101: Turning Concepts into Visual Forms

Lin Huff-Corzine
University of Central Florida


In their focus on analysis, sociologists may forget that before any well-developed understanding of phenomena can be achieved, adequate description is a must. Storyboarding, the use of a series of pictures in separate frames to outline or brainstorm ideas about how to tell a story can lead to such descriptions. Following a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of storyboarding, I explain the techniques involved to use this exercise in a diversity class and conclude with an examination of how it may be employed in other courses.

Storyboarding 101: Turning Concepts into Visual Forms

"A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words." -- Confucius

Sociologists tend to stress the importance of analyzing events rather than "just" describing them. What we often forget is that before any well-developed understanding of phenomena can be achieved, clear, concise, complete, and accurate descriptions are a must. Storyboarding, the use of a series of pictures in separate frames to outline or brainstorm ideas about how to tell a story can lead to such descriptions. Thus, the value of storyboarding for sociologists becomes most evident as it encourages the creative analysis of events that can then be developed, evaluated, and explained in more depth using cause-effect modeling.

Following a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of storyboarding, I explain how this exercise has been used in a diversity class and conclude with an examination of how it may be employed in other settings. The presentation of the activity will focus on the formation of students' self-identity across the lifecourse. However, the same basic exercise can be used to explore identity as related to gender, race/ethnicity, or class. Langham (1994:114) asserts that groups may also use storyboards to "get people to focus, to think, to be creative, and to be more productive."

Theoretical Underpinnings And Literature Review

"A primary tenet of all symbolic interaction theory holds that the self is established, maintained, and altered in and through communication" (Stone 1962:86). In his examination of communication, Stone demonstrates that all communication can be broken down into two parts; discourse and appearance. Discourse, as he uses the term, is auditory whereas appearance is visual. For Stone (1962), visual communication is that part of a social transaction which "sets the stage for, or establishes, the types of verbal discourse possible" (Huff-Corzine 1986:15).

Storyboards provide the visual component, the primary component, for communicating with one's self as well as with others. For this reason, they serve as powerful tools for learning more about one's self, as well as for organizing "stories" to be shared with larger audiences in auditory formats.

Some will argue that "storyboarding originated with the Walt Disney Company in the early days of antimated films" (Langham 1994:114) where it was, and still is, used to create the story line for a film by laying out the scenes in sequence. The concept of storyboarding has a much longer history, however, with it most likely being as old as the desire of persons to express themselves, perhaps evolving even before the ability to use verbal language for communication. From drawings in the caves of our early ancestors to the storyboards of Palau, these works which are usually labeled art forms rather communication forms, "were used to tell legends, to record events, and to teach social values" (Lockhart 1983:37).

Storyboards produced by students in my classes are normally far from what anyone would call artistic. But that's okay. I am not asking students to become artists. Instead, I employ storyboarding to assist students to recall and express experiences that have shaped their self-identities. In this way, the use of storyboards show the essential role visual description plays in forming the basis for further discourse and analysis of phenomena (Stone 1962) whether follow-up communication is verbal, written, or pictorial, i.e., video or still photography.

Storyboard Directions For Classroom Use

I begin this exercise by having people take a few moments to visualize critical or important turning points in their lives. Students usually find it helpful to think about these events as they have evolved over time or as they relate to other life events. This process can be stimulated by advising them to consider things that may have happened during preschool, elementary, junior high, and high school. It may also be helpful to have them consider events related to special holidays or various family rituals. In short, students are asked to focus on their socialization and to lay out scenes (frames) that visually represent events that have made a critical difference in their self-development.

After everyone seems to understand the focus of the exercise, I provide each of the 20 students in the class with a large, flip chart size piece of paper. Smaller paper sizes can be used if the class is large or the space small. Numerous, wide felt-tip, pens in a variety of colors, are passed around for all to use. Because color often depicts important information, I provide many colors to choose from and advise students to use the colors that "feel right" or have meaning for their work and to choose or swap colors with other students as needed. Words are to be kept to an absolute minimum; only short clips like "WOW," "GREAT," or "#1" in comic strip format are acceptable.

Next, students divide their paper into six to nine sections either by folding the paper or sectioning off areas similar to a tic-tac-toe game and draw one vignette per section based on their life experiences. Each scene is to depict the student's perception of how someone either directly or indirectly told him/her to behave. As an example of a critical life event to draw on the board, a woman may be shown talking to a little girl dressed up like a veterinarian with a line through the latter depiction. The accompanying written or verbal explanation could be that the woman is the girl's mother telling her daughter that no matter how bright she is or how good she is working with animals girls can not, and should not, strive to be veterinarians. I suggest that illustrations such as this one be limited to one or two examples because they may influence the students' thinking processes. On the other hand, an example using your own life experiences and "distinguished" stick figures does seem to alleviate students' fears of sharing their elementary-level drawings.

"The experience of drawing rather than writing often serves surprisingly well to cue people in to many childhood memories" (Sargent 1984:10). I attempt to further reduce anxieties and improve the link with childhood memories by encouraging students to choose a comfortable place to do the in-class assignment. A few will remain glued to their desks, but most will move. Some will end up lying or sitting on the floor with their pens and paper spread around. Others will want to stand and draw on the paper taped to the chalkboard or wall (if allowed). And a few will leave the room altogether to go into a more open area or outside (weather permitting). It usually takes about 30 minutes for students to complete their drawings so by the time instructions, examples, and the drawings are finished, you will have used most of a 50-minute hour. If time permits, students can begin giving oral presentations based on their storyboards during the same class period they do the drawing, but at some point everyone needs the opportunity to share their work. The first time I used this technique, I felt the need to move on to other issues so only those randomly chosen had the opportunity to present. Those who did not verbally share with the class felt they missed out and that their experience was incomplete. In classes with over 20 to 25 students, the professor may want to split the class into smaller groups for the storyboard presentations, but everyone needs the chance to complete all of the steps involved in the exercise.

No matter what the class size or course topic, students find that this exercise facilitates their understanding of themselves and the importance of socialization. As one woman said, "Today I learned a lot about myself with the storyboarding exercise. I didn't think I would have enough events to fill the frames, but actually I ran out of space." Focusing more on what she learned about other students in the class, another woman commented that "I learned about myself and others in the class. Not only did I see how we were different, but also how we are the same even though we all seem different at first glance." Whether they felt they had learned more about themselves or others, students generally enjoy the exercise and find it a worthwhile reflective endeavor. Some of the more common responses include those gathered at the end of one class session. "I love these projects which let us think about ourselves and get to know each other." "I really enjoyed doing the frames today. It gave me a chance to look back at my life and all of the events that have helped to make me who I am." "I don't get much time nowadays to reflect and put my life in perspective. It was good to remember where I came from and how I got here." It gave me a chance to reflect on what was important in my life." And finally pointing out the importance of visual cues, one student asserted that she "learned that pictures can make a strong statement without words;" the very message I had hoped to convey with this exercise.

Beyond Storyboarding 101

As noted, I originally used this exercise in a diversity class with the following outcomes. First, by having students examine how their own self-identity has been influenced by particular life events, they begin to see what they have in common with persons they perceive to be different from themselves and learn to be more open minded and tolerant of others. Second, it provides an easy point to enter the conceptualization process; that is, taking an idea from its abstract form into a concrete form, a pictorial depiction or story. Third, practicing the art of storyboarding at the individual level with a focus on self-identity sets the stage for examination of identity as it relates to race/ethnicity, gender, or class. Finally, storyboards may enhance creativity, productivity, and problem solving among groups (Larkin 1996). Similar to an outline, but done in picture form, students may use storyboards as preliminary to verbal presentations, written assignments, still photography, and video production course requirements. In fact, I require that storyboards, as well as written scripts, accompany videos completed by student groups so that I have evidence of the group process and individual contributions.

Classes, seminars, and workshops that may find this technique useful are too numerous to mention; only one's imagination sets the limits. For purposes of this paper, however, I will discuss two additional applications; one at the individual level and the other at the group level.

In a Gender Issues class, this exercise can be used to highlight how people are socialized into gender roles. Students are encouraged to focus on events that have shaped their gender identity. How did they come to understand masculinity and femininity? If they have trouble getting started, it usually helps to have students think about what work and leisure activities they remember family members being engaged in on a regular basis. Most often students will recall mothers cooking, fathers mowing the lawn, and other traditional divisions of labor that can then be explored with the class in more depth. Sharing their stick figures and accompanying stories is a very important part of this assignment. Students can learn a great deal not only about themselves and others in the class, but also about the influence of significant others on the development of their gender role expectations. At the individual level, this basic activity may be translated for use in a variety of classes such as Race and Ethnicity, Social Stratification, Sociology of Religion, and Aging.

Storyboards may be employed to "visually focus a group's attention and streamline discussion" and firms are available that focus solely on training groups how to use the technique (Langham 1994:114). Just as described above, businesses view storyboarding as a working process, not as an end in and of itself, but as a strategy to explore unique, creative ways to market a product or solve a problem.

As an educational tool, I have student groups use storyboarding as one of the means to successfully complete a video assignment. In this situation, groups have chosen a broad topic (e.g., race, gender, class) and are at the point where they need to develop the story to be told.

Similar to cave sketches, carvings by the Palau, or their professional counterparts at Disney, students visually plan the key scenes of their stories and place them in sequence using group discussion and their Storyboarding 101 techniques. Once the storyboard is complete with its descriptive form intact and the story's shell is filled with detailed content, the script can be written and the visual story told.


Huff-Corzine, Lin. 1986. Beauty and the Beast: A Social Psychological Study of Weight Satisfaction and Dieting Behavior. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University.

Langham, Barbara A. 1994. "Drawing It Out." Successful Meetings Part I:114-116.

Larkin, Greg. 1996. "Storyboarding: A Concrete Way to Generate Effective Visuals." Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 26:273-289.

Lockhart, Bill. 1983. "The Storyboards of Palau." School Arts 82:37-39.

Sargent, Alice G. 1984. Beyond Sex Roles, 2nd Edition. St. Paul: West.

Stone, Gregory P. 1962. "Appearance and the Self." Pp. 86-118 in Human Behavior and Social Processes, edited by Arnold M. Rose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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