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The Art of Storyboarding

By Kevin Thorn / August 2011

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The term storyboarding is often used in the eLearning industry, but sometimes it seems it's more a buzzword than a commonly understood idea. To understand it better and to understand the art behind it, we first need to go back in history a bit. Storyboarding was first used by Walt Disney for the 1928 animation, "Plane Crazy." Disney drew up numbered panels, indicating how they were to appear- before the development of the film.

Walt's method quickly evolved to a form still in use today. He employed it in developing the most famous of early animated cartoons—which brought the birth of Mickey Mouse - in 1932's "Steamboat Willie." Disney used the fundamental storyboard we still use today in eLearning—side-by-side panels with text on one side describing the content on that screen, with a sketch of what the screen will look like on the other side (See Figure 1):

Figure 1: Example of a storyboard in format developed by Walt Disney.

This process, the storyboarding process, offers the ability to see how all the screens will look in sequence. If any of the screens don't fit the flow, they can easily be edited or moved around. An example of a present-day storyboard layout might be as simple as a quick sketch. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: An example of a typical sketched storyboard.

Storyboarding as a Tool

A good analogy is to think of a storyboard as the blueprint for a house. Imagine you're a contractor building a new house and you have the best carpenter, bricklayer, roofer, and painters. You've chosen the location and have a general idea of how you want the house to look. You start by building the foundation, then begin putting up walls, adding a roof, and finishing all the details. By then you've realized you have an exterior door on the second floor that leads nowhere, a sink installed in a bedroom, and a fireplace with no chimney. How did this happen? By starting without a blueprint.

Now, apply this analogy to an eLearning project: You have great content, graphic artists, and developers, yet no storyboard. You're off and running building an award winning course only to learn there are dead ends, endless loops, or other poor design features. The storyboard is your blueprint. It has all the details and boundaries to keep things on a planned schedule.

Storyboarding as an Art

Storyboard = Blueprint. Got it. But what about the "art" of storyboarding? Art here doesn't refer to being artistic, but rather, the deliberate, thoughtful manner in which you go about it. The "art of cooking" doesn't necessarily mean being trained at a prestigous culinary school and understanding the science behind the ingredients, but having a good practical sense of how to execute basic tasks, knowing how to blend flavors, and being attentive to the presentation - the plating. Similarly, the art of storyboarding is blending all the content, assets, instruction, and navigation in a logical, easy-to-understand document or set of documents. The storyboard is now a working blueprint for one person or a team as well as a way to record the overall project for future maintenance.

The word "art" also means there are no rules. (Yay! No rules!) Well, there are some rules but essentially this means there is no right or wrong way to storyboard a project. Each project dictates what needs to be accomplished, and each company or team has its own internal cultural language. The point is to have documentation that outlines and/or maps the flow instruction. So the art in storyboarding is as much the creative design process as is the eLearning course itself. The more time you devote to the storyboard, the less time is needed for development.

Pulling from Wikipedia sources, a basic definition of "storyboarding" is given as "the process of visual thinking displayed in sequence." As we write the instructional design we must also think visually how it will be displayed on screen. At the same time we need to keep a conscious thought to the "sequence" in order to ensure good instructional flow.

At a minumum there should be at least two documents, one for instructional design and one for visual design. Since we're talking about art, there is no reason to debate whether one should storyboard the instructional design of a course first and then visually design it or vice versa. Remember, it's a process, not a rule. If you work solo, you may do these simutaneously. If you work on a team, one may be assigned the instructional design work while others are responsible for the visual layout. In either case, it is imperative that everyone is in sync with the overall design. And that design is documented in a storyboard.

Storyboarding a Project

In a large project you may want to consider multiple storyboard documents to keep things organized. Perhaps one just for the audio narration script, one for a video that will be used in the course, or maybe one for asset management of all the images. Here's a list of a few that could be used:

  • instructional design with a script
  • instructional design without a script
  • audio script only
  • video shot list
  • assessments
  • interaction design

Remember, the "art" of storyboarding does not adhere to any steadfast rules. Depending on what your project entails, add or design storyboard documents that fit the need.

Another idea may be to add a Storyboard Workbook to your project plan. The workbook would include all the documents used for the design and development of the course including the visual storyboard, style guides with colors and fonts, and an asset library listing all the images and graphics. With the above potential storyboard documents and these listed here, even a small project would benefit from having these resources.

Your style is yours, and remember there are no rules to storyboarding—only benefits.


Speaking of benefits, storyboarding is:

  • Your most powerful collaborative tool for a team designing and developing eLearning.
  • A contextual map outlining flow of instruction.
  • Used as a guide in the project management of an eLearning course.
  • Course management for post eLearning edits and maintenance.

Whatever your design process is, consider grabbing a piece of graph paper and a pencil. Put yourself in the shoes of the learner and design the flow of the instruction in a visual context. That simple sketch is the first step in mapping out your course. More importantly, you're documenting the work for that next time when you're charged with updating content a year from now.

About the Author

Kevin Thorn, an award-winning eLearning designer, won the DevLearn 2010 DemoFest Best of Show award. After retiring from the Army, he earned a B.S. in information technology management from Christian Brothers University. Presently he is a LMS Administrator and Learning Design & Technologies Specialist, and fully immerses himself in all things related to eLearning. He is experienced in eLearning development, instructional design, storyboards, graphics design, and LMS implementation. Kevin is also a freelance consultant, illustrator, cartoonist, and animator, and he writes views and tutorials about eLearning at


  • Tue, 06 Dec 2011
    Post by Robert Pattinson

    See Ed Emberley's Drawing books for kids or Dan Roam's "Back of the Napkin" book as starters. One of the main reasons I sketch in my storyboards is to facilitate collaboration.

    Byregards R.Patinson Latest Movies - Moovieland

  • Thu, 08 Sep 2011
    Post by sharonlin

    Ed Emberley's Drawing books for kids is quite good for a starter to enjoy drawing for storyboarding. Quite helpful, both the article and the comment.

  • Fri, 26 Aug 2011
    Post by MagdaDiaz

    Great overview.

    People need to get over the fact that they need to "know how to draw" to add visuals to their storyboards. Simple thumbnail sketches are fine and there are a number of great books to get you started.

    See Ed Emberley's Drawing books for kids or Dan Roam's "Back of the Napkin" book as starters.

    One of the main reasons I sketch in my storyboards is to facilitate collaboration. Visuals also help groups/SMEs/IDs and Devs come into alignment because we can actually *see* what we mean. Visual storyboarding almost eliminates revisions.

    I'd like to see more of these Visual Thinking articles on eLearn Magazine.