storyboarding for architectural interfaces

Storyboarding is a common technique used in movie production that many designers of physical places will need to embrace and explore as architectural environments integrate evermore dynamic experiences via digital signage and digital lighting technologies.

If you’re not familiar with storyboarding, a summary from Wikipedia:

storyboard is a graphic organizer that consists of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualising a motion pictureanimationmotion graphic or interactive media sequence. The storyboarding process, in the form it is known today, was developed at Walt Disney Productions during the early 1930s, after several years of similar processes being in use at Walt Disney and other animation studios.


Storyboards are commonly used in the earliest stages of planning out a movie. Key moments, character staging, scenography concepts, motion concepts, etc. are all sorted out via storyboards.

For example, this was a sketch I made for an unproduced corporate marketing video showcasing the advantages of 3D printing (I kindly call my artistic skill-level chicken scratch…but it shows how simple storyboards can be!):


In modern movie making, storyboards are now often combined with dialogue scratch-tracks, music pieces, rough animation sequences, etc. and edited into what are called animatics. Animatics are crude versions of the final movie but highly instructive to show the flow and pacing of the movie, along with dynamic sequences. For example, here is a video showing the original animatic and the final movie from a sequence in Pixar’s Up.


In addition to traditional storyboards, Pixar pioneered a slightly different methodology where they develop a “colorscript” of the entire movie, showing major progression of color, tone and mood quite early in the development process. Here is an example of a Pixar color script:

Below is an example of a storyboard and colorscript for a modern animated movie, side-by-side:

storyboarding for interactivity

I recently visited a fantastic exhibition called Storyworld in Groningen (in the Netherlands), that explores the modern art of storytelling through the mediums of animated movies, comic books and video games. What was exceptional about the exhibition were the common threads of artistic technique that such diverse media use to tell captivating tales – techniques that are readily applicable to real life architectural environments.

There was a huge breadth of content in the exhibition – too much to document – but let me highlight one fascinating piece of development art that a interaction designer created for a game called “ibb&obb”. At the left are studies for the game dynamics, at the right studies for the visual style.

Of course, in the digital world, there are the rapidly emerging professions of UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design. These require their own versions of storyboarding. Here’s a great primer on User Interface Design from Riot Games:

As you can see from the video above, UI/UX professionals have developed a variety of tools – many of which are particularly spatial in orientation or concept – which further lend themselves to the design of physical places with interactivity. For example, a flow chart like below is just a different presentation of the architectural fundamentals of place, threshold & progression.

10 Rules of Good UI Design to Follow On Every Web Design Project | Elegant  Themes Blog

While UI/UX designers have effectively created their own versions of storyboards, colorscripts and animatics, they are largely the same concepts but wrapped in different jargon. Below is a nice visual that really proves the point that storytelling is the key skill at play.

10 UI Design Must-Haves | Dowitcher Designs

storyboarding for architectural interfaces?

A long time ago (1999), in a land far, far away (Boston), I speculated on the core opportunity to use spatial proximity to control interactions between an architectural space and the occupants within that space. As part of my thesis research at Harvard’s GSD, I diagrammed the core methods of interacting with active surfaces, zones and objects in architectural spaces. While this was not a storyboard per se, it is a good representation of how designers of the built environment might start to explore and document key interactive moments in physical spaces:

From those core diagrams, I created a storyboard in physical model form of how a wall surface may actively control focus and draw occupants towards a retail/museum display:

the future of storyboarding for architectural interfaces?

Existing methodologies for documenting “smart” building systems are woefully inadequate. How many consultants still use spreadsheets to document dimming scenes or connections between fancy IoT connected devices? Shameful!

It will be interesting to see how the most progressive spatial designers visualize interactivity in physical places. Will they jump straight to live-rendered explorations of their BIM models in software like Unreal Engine? Or will they continue to use the basic principles of storyboarding – and all its derivatives – to lay out the core essence of the occupant’s experience? How will the design concept flow effectively all the way through to field commissioning with the least amount of project friction?

FYI, here is a video promo of the Storyworld exhibition: