Introduction: Storyboarding for Product Design

About: I'm an engineer, designer, and maker studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Most people are familiar with the term "storyboard" in relation to movies, as a way that film creatives communicate to set up shots and plan out the plot. But storyboarding is also a critical part of the design process. Just as the film industry uses storyboards to communicate, so too do industrial designers, especially those specializing in interaction design.

Quick storyboards can be used to illustrate and evaluate product usability in early design directions, while polished storyboards have the power to convince clients and investors that (a) you know what you're doing and (b) that your product or experience has the potential to engage.

Although it seems intimidating, storyboarding is doable regardless of drawing skill, provided that you have the tools and tips to succeed. Today, I'll be showing you my storyboarding process for developing a new layout for the paint booth at the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech.

(Disclaimer: There's no one right way to storyboard, and that's part of what keeps it interesting. Each product is different. Part of the challenge is framing up a story, which - although we'll talk about my methodology - takes practice to define your style.)


permanent marker


graphics tablet - I use my Surface Pro 4.

digital camera

a friend


Autodesk Sketchbook

Vector Graphics Editor (I'll be using Illustrator, but Inkscape works.)

Step 1: Know Your Audience.

Storyboarding can take anywhere from 5 minutes to a full day, depending on the desired fidelity of your storyboards. How do you decide what is appropriate for your situation? I do it based on the intended audience for my storyboard.

  • Low Fidelity - Takes me between 5 and 30 minutes, low quality drawings, Sharpie on printer paper.
    • Help me think through my designs, because they allow me to visualize and evaluate the user experience.
    • Are for my eyes only, so only I have to be able to tell what the things I've drawn are. (ie, they can look like crud, and that's okay.)
  • Medium Fidelity - Takes me between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours, crisper drawings, Sharpie and ballpoint pen on printer and trace paper - may be accompanied with marker highlights.
    • Usually for a design review, with direct supervisors or colleagues.
    • Are to communicate with colleagues. The drawings must be clear enough to showcase the experience you are trying to provide, but they don't have to be perfect.
    • Are usually accompanied by a verbal explanation, rather than a written one.
  • High Fidelity - Takes me at least 4 hours, beautiful drawings, usually done in digital mediums.
    • Are for clients, investors, important presentations, etc.
    • Are usually built off of Low or Medium Fidelity storyboards, which are scanned and transferred into digital media for revision, minor adjustments, and cleanup.
    • Are used to sell your idea, generally brought out for the big pitch.
    • May be accompanied by verbal or brief text descriptors.Thi

Step 2: Identify Key Traits of the User Experience

Obviously, you know everything there is about your design - after all, you're the one who made it! But some of the details that you know may or may not be important to the user, or to the audience. If you include literally every aspect about your design in your storyboard, it will detract from the features that are really important. It's up to you to decide what is important to include in your story, and that can be difficult.

I generally choose 3 or 4 key features of my product to showcase. For the paint booth redesign, I chose to emphasize safety, color/paint selection, the work area, and the drying area.

Some of these features require more drawings than others to convey, so if you start to feel like you've got too many things to draw, you may want to re-evaluate your list.

Step 3: Identify the Core Interaction of Those Experiences.

Storyboards are all about the interactions. Consider the list that you came up with in the previous step, and distill the features down to 1 - 3 interactions each. While you are doing this, try to imagine what would best illustrate those interactions to your audience.

For the paint booth, my interaction list looked as follows:

  1. Safety:
    1. The user reads the signage on the door, that shows policies and best practices.
    2. Inside the paint booth, the user puts on the provided safety equipment.
  2. Color/Paint selection:
    1. The user stands in front of the paint selection and sees a wide variety of possible products.
    2. The user picks up a paint.
  3. The Work Area:
    1. The user pulls out a paint trivet.
    2. The user puts their object on the paint trivet.
    3. The user spray paints their object.
  4. The Drying Area:
    1. The user removes their paint trivet from the table.
    2. The user places the paint trivet on the drying racks, next to other drying products.
    3. The user leaves happy.

Step 4: Rough Out Your Scenes.

For each interaction that you identified, you will want to make a drawing. In my case, with the previously identified step, I'd want to make 10 drawings. (That is a lot of panels for a design storyboard, so I later combine a few of them.)

Using a permanent marker, roughly draw out what you think that the scene may look like. When designing a panel, remember to emphasize the things that are the MOST important. It may take 3 or 4 quick drawings to find a scene that you really like. Remember: These are low fidelity storyboards. Only you need to understand them. Don't get too stressed out about trying to make a good drawing.

As a general rule of thumb, the first panel should establish the setting.

Step 5: Make/gather References.

A little known secret about designers is that many of us use reference images as either things to be traced or as an underlays for form development. When I'm ideating, I can freehand fairly well, but drawing people or hands to-scale consistently between panels is challenging. We compose images and then trace/modify them to guarantee a high quality, consistent outcome - plus it saves time.

Making people references:

  • Grab a friend, your rough storyboard, and a camera, and take them to a well-lit area. (If it can be the location you are designing for, that's awesome!)
  • Make sure there are appropriate props in the area. For instance, I needed spray paint cans, a table, and a respirator. (If you don't have props on hand, have them act like they are holding those things. This is harder to use later.)
  • Using your Sharpie storyboards as a guide, frame up shots to act out your scenes. Take pictures once you are satisfied.

Pro-tip: Take many MANY pictures, from different angles, in case you decide that you don't like your original scene. I ended up taking 24 reference photos for an 8 panel storyboard.

Making stuff references:

3D modeling rough shapes is a great way to create underlays, although I didn't use it for this storyboard. Fusion 360 is super quick and easy to use, and I have used it in the past to make rough, in-perspective mockups of my scenes or products.

Step 6: Outline the Scenes in a Drawing Software.

Graphics tablets can help you create the cleanest possible storyboards, because they let you layer images and recover from mistakes (ctrl + Z is the best). While there are many software options for things like this, I use Sketchbook. I find that the UI is optimized for pen & tablet drawing, and I really like the ruler/ellipse feature to make sure that my perspective is right.

  • Import your reference images for a scene into Sketchbook.
  • Lower the opacity so that you don't lose sight of your pen cursor while drawing.
  • Create a new layer for your underlay.
  • Trace over your images to capture the most important parts of your reference photo.
  • Build the scene around them. (This is where you might use CAD references.)

Step 7: Clean Up Your Rough Underlay.

Once you're satisfied with your details in the underlay, create a new layer.

Outline/trace the important features of your scene. Remember, since storyboarding is a cartoony style, you don't have to capture every detail, especially if it's not the part of the scene you want the audience to focus on.

Turn off your underlay, and look at your cool drawing!

Pro-tip: Use variations in line weights to break up your drawing and make it more professional-looking. I use bold lines for my cutting edges, medium weight lines for product focus details, and light line weights for details that are important but aren't the focus point.

Step 8: Color/emphasize Important Features.

Storyboards are largely black, white, and grey. A splash of color can really emphasize important features. Additionally, you can use arrows or symbols to provide movement or context to your drawing. (Always add arrows/symbols on a different layer than your outlines.)

To add color:

  • Create a new layer underneath your outline layer.
  • Select the outline layer, and the "selection" tool.
  • Choose the magic wand tool, and click the area that you want filled in. This area must be either completely enclosed or very close to it. (Alternately, if the magic wand tool isn't working, you should use the lasso tool. It's more tedious, but sometimes it's the only way to get things selected.)
  • Select your color layer.
  • Select the fill tool.
  • Select a color or gradient.
  • Click your selected area.

Step 9: Crop, Assemble, and Organize.

Repeat steps 6-8 for every scene that you have, and export all of your scenes as images.

Once you have your images, import them into your vector graphics program. I used Illustrator.

Order them as you intended, and use clipping masks to trim off sloppy edges.

Leave space between the panels and the edges of the artboard, and leave room underneath each panel for text.

Step 10: Caption. (Optional)

Summarize your panel with a once-sentence descriptor, using as few words as possible. Type up your caption underneath the relevant panel.

Aaaaand you're done! Go show off your new storyboard! Woo your clients, and impress your friends!

Special thanks to my model: kakaday22

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