Designs of Meaning: Tools for Digital Storytellers
By Aimée Knight and Austin Starin


What makes a great digital story, and what are the necessary tools? Whether you are a journalist, writer, designer, academic, marketer, or social media manager, you have no doubt encountered digital stories that are engaging and artful, while others fail to engage the senses, make an impact, or have an effect.

In this interactive toolbox, we show you how to create meaningful interactions for your audience using platforms such as Wordpress, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Cowbird, and Medium. The tools we offer pull together theories and best practices that can be applied to any story to create meaning.

To build our toolbox, we drew across disciplinary borders - from rhetoricians to social theorists, to artists and interaction designers.

Our mission? To empower you to create more meaningful and engaging stories. You’ll find techniques that apply to text, audio, image, animation, video, and interactive content.


We offer 16 story cards (tools)—each one represents a foundational concept. Explore them, and you’ll see how there are multiple pathways to engage your audience. Each card is labeled with a verb, representing an act or action on the part of the storyteller. The colors on the cards signify one of four key themes in digital storytelling. These themes are as follows:

Aesthetic Experience

Sensory-based meaning

Sensory experience is a fundamental part of story composition and new media studies. When you study the story cards, you’ll gain an empirical, sensory-based understanding of how the aesthetic can be applied to a variety of contexts and fields, including multimodal composition, transmedia storytelling, visual rhetoric, GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) infosthetics (the visual representation of information), the teaching of composition, new media art, gaming, electronic music, cinema, and digital cinema – to name a few.


Engagement in and across platforms

Digital stories combine several modalities including sound, image, and user interaction to create immersive texts that often “[unfold] across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 95-96). Our story cards focus on the nature of transmedia, namely, how media interact and intersect, as well as ways we can use them— both individually and together— to create engaging stories. As Pratten (2011) importantly notes, a successful transmedia story often involves “a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration” (p. 1).


Creating participatory cultures

We make and connect in a “participatory culture”— “rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3). These cards examine how we interact with digital texts and each other in a participatory culture.


Integrating form and content

The design cards help us to achieve a rhetorical awareness of key formal design principles and call attention to a few valuable design methodologies that you can employ in developing and implementing digital stories.

We are constantly rewriting, remaking, and reevaluating in the digital space, and we invite you to contribute to the dialogue. Media are always being made; meanings are always changing.

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