Non-Verbal Storytelling


The students of the Architectural Illustration course at the University of Memphis focused on storytelling through non-verbal communication this semester. Our investigative projects included: entourage elements, quick sketches, artistic photorealism, and sketch journaling. Each project has allowed us to explore our individual storytelling voice in order to uncover how we can better communicate.

Students in class considered different themes for their storytelling method. I tried to understand the limitations of visual representations of color. A rendering can guide the way one perceives the landscape, but the viewer will determine how to interpret the rendering. Providing limited color allows one to daydream in a different way in order to bring life to the space.


Our first formal assignment was to add a new architectural element to an existing site in New York’s Hudson River Valley. For this story we utilized two‐point perspective sketching to illustrate a new boat shelter. The goal was to provide the client with images of the proposed project in order for the client to make a convincing argument for fund‐raising purposes. Keeping the client’s intentions in mind, each student chose two views of the proposed boat shelter so that the drawings could be combined to create a complete package.

Other students used broader views of the surrounding environment, while my sketches centered on the user’s relationship with the boat shelter. It is these types of entourage elements, or details, that can add intrigue to a story. To create the drawings, I started with photocopies of source images of the existing conditions. Using a light table, the new boat shelter was created with pencil on trash paper placed on top of the source image. Another layer of trash paper was used to trace the source image and boat shelter with Micron pens. This drawing was then photocopied onto vellum.

As part of the sketching process I tried to understand how color could compliment my style of line drawing, which tends to be loose and implied. While varying the line weights to show depth in a drawing comes naturally, adding color is not as intuitive. Equipped with Chartpak markers, the use of color was limited in order to highlight key entourage elements to attract the viewer’s attention to the story I was trying to tell. In this instance, color was not necessarily used to indicate texture, the edge of a surface or represent a feeling or mood. (Approximate time start to finish: 8 hours).


Color can provide an insightful element that grabs the viewer’s attention, and help shape the story in a progressive way. Color can also vary the pace of the story. For example, is it short and choppy, or connected by color? In the absence of a storytelling, how much color is needed to maintain the viewer’s attention? How much color is needed for the viewers to effortlessly finish the story themselves? It is also important to keep in mind that not everyone perceives color in the same way.

In terms of adding color, the students learned some useful tips.

  1. Create a color reference sheet that identifies each color used by name.

  2. Build a library of testers. Create samples of numerous drafts of how to create color before you begin the final drawing.

  3. As intently as you stare at the drawing, make sure to also look at the drawing from 5 feet away, 10 feet away, and 15 feet away.

  4. It is important to understand how scanners and printers will affect reproductions, as well as how to color correct.

Storytelling is an ongoing process – the more we tell stories, the better we become, learning from successes and failures, and refining our methods.

(Originally published in Opportunities – the e-newsletter of the Design Communcation Association. Fall 2013.)