The Story Behind Art

Most stories are written with the ending in mind. The goal here is to explore the development of the short story through history. Also, how storytelling is presented through digital media, which has a background in creative graphic design. Graphic design will also be included in regards to how it developed with the creation of the Macintosh in the 1980s, as well as design software.  Process work is a major part of graphic design and will be discussed.

The short story genre began in the early 1800s. Edgar Allan Poe is known as one of the first American writers of the short story. Poe states in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham’s Magazine, April 1846,  “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. For, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.”[1] Therefore short stories are uniquely written with the intention to captivate the reader and give he/she a complete experience without being interrupted to soon by the wilds of life. The impact of a story is greater if uninterrupted. There is a distinct limit to the length of literary art, which may sometimes be surpassed. In any great short story there is a tone that the writer takes to set the mood, followed up with a predetermined path the story takes to reach an ending and/or alternate ending. The reading of Poe’s essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” gives insight into how his thoughts developed and his hands constructed his narrative poem, “The Raven.”

Poe states in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “Two things are invariably required – first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness – some undercurrent, however indefinite, of meaning.”[2] This undercurrent of an idea is where a work of art exudes its richness, which the viewers often confuse with the ideal, perfection of the artist’s idea. The ideal is what the majority of viewers take away from a piece of art regardless of how imperfect the final piece is. The underlying process preceding any finalized artwork is certainly more important than the finished piece to the artist. The process work is where the meaning actually emerges, something that the viewer is often left out of.

Many graphic designers agree that the most interesting part of a design is the process work, a venture that leads to the finished piece. Graphic design as a whole includes many alleys of presentation – printed material that includes billboards, magazines, advertisements, invitations, smaller campaigns (business cards, letterheads and envelopes), posters, packaging, and a multiplicity of other formats. It also takes on a manifestation in the digital medium that includes websites, advertisements, e-invitations, videos, and animations. The installation and presentation of the final design is never limited to those mentioned above. Graphic designers have an artistic background in the fine arts and are capable of producing art outside of the mediums designated to graphic design as well.

Poe also states in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would – that is to say, who could – detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion.”[3] Poe’s words also correspond to design; documenting the process is of utmost importance when authoring a design so that the designer can review and revise it as necessary. Working with the client to gain the attention of a specific audience is a large part of graphic design. However, again a designer is not limited to stricter terms of graphic design and may produce designs centered on his/her social beliefs. The abstract visual language of the Avant-garde movement in the 1920s provides excellent examples of artists expressing their social beliefs. György Kepes is one of the many artists who produced art during this movement.

György Kepes was a painter, designer, author and educator who is best known as the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kepes was so moved by the horrors of World War One that it inspired him to venture into filmmaking with László Moholy-Nagy in 1930. Filmmaking as well as graphic design became mediums for the expression of his social beliefs. In the 1940s, Kepes designed advertisements for the Container Corporation of America and also Fortune Magazine, created a mural, and designed “The Art of the United Nations” exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. His graphic design work continued through 1960 when his vision for CAVS took form. He hoped it might be the way to “find some common denominator between the landscape open to the artist and that which is open to the scientist.”[4] This reflects the definition of design, which is the combination of the artist’s creative mind and an understanding of technology (science) needed to produce art with a digital medium.

Kepes’ career then became fixed as an educator and he taught at various universities across the United States. All of his accomplishments in design have developed out of a process with a focus on his social beliefs. This is reflected in his statement, “Design which has its root in the heart of man and not in his pocket is alive…no genuine work is done if the intent is shallow. My whole life has been a struggle to make design a part of the human lot…not to sell but to help life.”[5]

Cooper states, “The restrictions of the page, the frame, the aspect ratio of the television set, the physical space of an exhibition hall, and the manufacturing tools also defined the degree to which audience or user could interact with the medium.”[6] Just like a short story, there are many restricting boundaries a designer must consider when developing an idea or product. Since the Industrial Revolution, the tools needed for print and broadcast technologies have evolved to better facilitate the creation of a well-developed message. The effort put forth by the overlapping of artists, designers, and scientists into the communication field greatly increased the chances of perception by the intended audience.

In the early 1970s, large and immensely expensive computers dominated the design industry. This did not deter designers or artists; rather, it intrigued them greatly because the computer now allowed design methods that would not have been plausible with conventional or analog, by hand or with non-digital equipment, design tools. Towards the end of the decade, technology advanced in the professional field of design enhancing the quality of resolution in images and typography. The cost of input devices, such as scanners, and output devices, such as printers, plummeted and became more affordable. This was due to technological advancements making circuits smaller for computers and Macintosh making computers available to the general public.

In the 1980s, the market for professional graphic design took flight with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 featuring enhanced speed in compact size. Around the same time, desktop publishing software emerged, and with the combination of the Macintosh, better typography and the LaserWriter (the first printer available to the mass market), layouts were easily created and more visually appealing. Design magazines were informing their readers of the advanced computers, which led to what Cooper described as “early symptoms of massive changes in professional and production patterns that will result in new interdisciplinary approaches to communication.”[7]

Interdisciplinary approaches lead to the production of multimedia design. Any combination of media is complex, and the traditional definitions and stipulations of media are then altered. However, the mixing of auditory and visual media in design produces a longer lasting effect on the intended audience than just one media (for example, the recent presidential campaign commercials). While multimedia is dynamic, it is still limited when it comes to interactivity. Popular multimedia consists of films, short movies, or animations. In these examples there is no actual hands-on activity from the viewer with the art. Examples of interactive multimedia include websites or games.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s work, including photography and film, exposed certain issues within the relationship of static and moving images to text. He explored visual and auditory devices to interrelate different time frames of sound and moving image. It is not uncharacteristic of Moholy’s work to be inherently derived through digital means. György Kepes, in “Language of Vision” and other writings, expounds on the inter-connectedness of art, technology, and design, and the need to refresh language to reflect the changing realities of this new digital age.[8]

Literature of art and technology is full of experimental works that explore the relationship of human experience to technology, for example, works created by John Cage, 4’33, and Otto Piene, Lichtballette. The creative generations to follow these artists have expanded the technological tools that are used to connect idea and audience while building upon and exploring the themes in these works. The personal computer, whether PC or Macintosh, desktop or laptop, as well as cell phones, Personal Digital Assistances, and iPods have allowed the audience to become virtually mobile while exploring these works.

Since the creation of the Internet in the early 1990s, artists have been manipulating the technological tools needed to construct digital artwork. Tim Berners-Lee created the Worldwide Web (WWW) in 1990 as a collaborative medium where all people could come together to share ideas in a free space.[9] refers to a group of artists who focused on the WWW as a platform for displaying their art. Among these artists is Olia Lialina who is famous for her 1996 story telling website, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War. Here, the viewer manipulates Lialina’s mesh of associated trails by choosing his or her own path and clicking within the frames on different sentences and images. Thus, the viewer creates his or her own version of the story. Perhaps this could be viewed as an early example of digital storytelling.

Digital Storytelling uses computers to create media-rich stories and the Internet to share those stories creating communities of common concern on a global scale.[10] This relatively new practice is where ordinary people use digital tools to tell their story. Digital stories often present in compelling and emotionally engaging formats, which use auditory and visual sensory, are usually less than eight minutes long and can be interactive. These formats include web-based stories, interactive stories, hypertexts, and narrative computer games. Digital storytelling is becoming a popular and modern way of storytelling. It’s even being used as a learning experience in the classroom for children. Through the use of iMovie and while working collaboratively or independently, children gain insight into the different modes of communication (spoken, written, visual, and technological) needed to produce a digital story. Tom Banaszewski states,

My fourth and fifth graders may never say so, but the Place Project was all about storytelling. At the beginning of the school year, students answered a survey about writing that asked, ‘Are you a writer?’ Sixty percent responded yes. After the Place Project, they responded to the same survey. ‘Are you a writer?’ Ninety-nine percent said yes. Nothing is foolproof, but I have yet to find anything as motivating and influential on students’ self-expression as helping them tell stories about an important place. The added dimension of video provided a meeting place for these students and their creativity.[11]

Contemporary cultural forms such as television and the Internet involve more than the perceptual system of sight and more than visual images as a communicative mode. Meaning is created through an interaction of music, the spoken word, sound effects and pictures.[12] If we mute the television while watching a show or playing a video game, we realize how important dialogue or sound effects are to the perception of the images. It’s not just the presence of sound with these images producing meaning, language in some form provides context. If there wasn’t text on a website, while the images may be compelling to look at, we wouldn’t know what they were about. For example, if you visit a website with language that is foreign to you then you will not receive the whole effect. The same applies to magazines, advertisements, and printed material in all its forms.

As a graphic designer, understanding these different modes of communication is critical when designing. It is the duty of any graphic designer to create with the audience in mind and to create a design that is comprehendible by the viewer. My goal is to create a digital storytelling website that will be interactive, allowing the viewer to determine the course they choose to view the story. I will be using a short story, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe, to better show the relationship between design and storytelling. It has been difficult learning the technological part (html code, css, javascript, jquery, etc.) of web design. Using parallax scrolling in this website has presented an additional level of education to the learning process. The modes of communication employed will include visual imagery as well as written text (narrative).

In my design process, after reading “The Raven”in Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Poems and reading a synopsis of it online at, I realized there was a lot of imagery and symbolism used. Breaking apart the story into stanzas is necessary for reading organization. While divulging the information/words in “The Raven,” I began to imagine colors and icons. Patterns became evident in the symbolism between stanzas and they began to link themselves together with the imagery forming in my mind (for example, the fiery eyes of the raven burning into the narrator’s bosom resembles the lamplight shining onto the velvet cushion, which could possibly create a fire or smoke if strong enough rays were emitted, leading to the next stanza of seraphim dispersing perfumed air into the room through censers, comparable to incense and smoke). The repetition of these iconic elements creates patterns that are used as backgrounds that the narrative rests on top of.

Storytelling websites include options for viewing, listening to, and/or editing a story. They can also be geared toward older audiences, with more mature themes. There is a plethora of storytelling websites, particularly geared towards children and their parents, to list a few, StorySite, Interactives, See-a-Story, Playground Buzz, Magic Keys and Mighty Book. Some of them are animated with the narrative encased in a player that gives the participant the option to pause, play and skip forward or backward. Other projects are not animated and include simple text narrative with hypertext and images.

Digital storytelling can be more interactive than simply clicking a link to reach another part of the story on a page. Storytelling can also become part of a game. In 2001 Mark Amerika began a project called FILMTEXT. In a discussion of the project, Mark Amerika elaborates,

By utilizing the surf-sample-manipulate method in the FILMTEXT project and applying it to various media elements such as animation, audio, video, hypertext and game playing, we inevitably began expanding our concept of cinema, too, and with it the concepts of visual, literary and performance art. Interacting with the site requires the visitor to become a viewer, a reader, a DJ/VJ, an art appreciator, a network navigator and an interactive participant who can – working within the parameters set by the artist – create her or his own ambient game environment, electronic literary experience and digitally expanded cinema, all at the same time.[13]

Games that are played online most of the time include a narrative that introduces the player to the game. The player then interacts with other people creating their own narrative within the game while playing. Examples of these games include World of Warcraft and The Sims.

Through advancement in technology, the education of these advancements, and the use of imagination I believe anyone is capable of producing a digital story, whether it is posted on the Internet or not.  However, it is through practice of artistic skills that a story is made to be interesting and appealing to most. In the beginning, there is intent behind the artist to drive their design. There must also be an ending in mind whether or not the artist completes the work to their expectations or not.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham’s Magazine, April 1846, accessed November 12, 2012,

[2] Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition.”

[3] Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition.”

[4] MIT news, “György Kepes, founder of CAVS, dies at 95,” last modified January 16, 2002, accessed November 12, 2012,

[5] Art Directors Club, “1981 Hall of Fame: György Kepes,” accessed November 12, 2012,

[6] Muriel Cooper, “Computers and Design,” Design Quarterly, No. 142 (1989), accessed November 1, 2012,

[7] Cooper, “Computers and Design.”

[8] Cooper, “Computers and Design.”

[9] Berners-Lee, Tim, et. al, “The World-Wide Web,” Communications of the ACM 37.8 (1994): 907-912.

[10] “What is Digital Storytelling,” Next Exit, accessed November 20, 2012,

[11] Tom Banaszewski, “Digital Storytelling Finds Its Place in the Classroom,” MultiMedia Schools (January/February 2002), accessed November 14, 2012,

[12] Paul Duncum, “Visual Culture Isn’t Just Visual: Multiliteracy, Multimodality and Meaning,” Studies in Art Education, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring, 2004), accessed November 1, 2012.

[13] Mark Amerika, “Expanding the Concept of Writing: Notes on Net Art, Digital Narrative and Viral Ethics,” Leonardo, accessed November 14, 2012,

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