In conclusion, starting a story from the end is an excellent way to engage your audience and capture their attention.
See what we did there? Telling stories in a non-linear way can add mystery to your content, and more storytellers are using it to their advantage.
Let’s take a step back
At the start of 2023, Netflix released Kaleidoscope, a show told across eight episodes served randomly to viewers (which ultimately creates over 5000 permutations of the story). That makes it highly unlikely any two people will watch the show unfold in the same order.
Of course, it’s not the first time the streaming company released an experimental TV show. Most notably, shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and You vs Wild allow viewers to choose the story’s path, changing the outcome in the process.
While nonlinear storytelling isn’t a new concept, it’s recently being applied to fields like web design and content marketing to achieve business results.
SputnikDesignTeam.com is the perfect example of this, a collage-like website that splits off into different case studies depending on which item the user selects. Other notable web experiences include Aino agency, Gakko.io, Unseen.co and this unique and unexpected BetterUp report website.
If you’re looking to try your hand at nonlinear storytelling, here’s how your agency can leverage it to create more unique, personalized and/or unconventional stories and designs.
Don’t start at the beginning
“One trend we’ve spotted that will take off in 2023 is the concept of telling a story mid-way through instead of at the beginning. It’s the ultimate hook - whether it’s decoding a trending topic or sharing a sound bite that’s bound to stop viewers in their tracks and make them want to play catch-up,” according to LaterBlog.
This is a great way to kick off an AIDA marketing creative, creating a sense of intrigue that compels the audience to further research a topic on their own. You can do this in a podcast, on a social media post (it’s hugely popular on Tiktok), in a blog, or even in drip email marketing series, you just have to make sure you aren’t being too cryptic so your audience can actually follow the trail you’re leaving.
Look to pattern disrupt
In web design, unconventional navigation is on the rise. Perhaps the most obvious nonlinear example can be found in Non-Linear Studio’s website, which runs true to form with unconventional scrolling patterns that captivate and afford more robust interactivity. Other creative agency examples include Jam3, Build in Amsterdam and Anton & Irene, each of which combine unique scroll and hover effects to let users hone in on selected projects.
To take the unconventional web design route, start by running a competitive analysis to determine the customer journey and messaging of other agencies and brands in your space. It helps to know how others are structuring their clients’ information architecture to get a better sense of how to differentiate your projects.
From there, you can start to break conventions either with small easter eggs that surprise and delight your customers (ie: hiding elements out of plain view to pop up unexpectedly or using an interesting scroll pattern), or else constructing an experience around the feature entirely. Emiozaki’s portfolio website does this well, built to function as a mobile experience on a computer.
Lean into the chaotic
By definition, nonlinearity has elements of randomness and complexity. Leveraging these elements as a design or marketing principle can increase engagement, raise awareness and incentivize action.
Adaptive web and graphic design Daniel Spatzek heavily embraces the chaotic by seemingly breaking all the rules of design (in a tasteful manner) on his portfolio site. Nathan Riley does the same with his own spin on things. Creative agency Poratron invites people to randomly check out different portfolio entries by randomizing which one pops up when clicking. It’s a fun element that injects a Kaleidoscope-like element of excitement into the experience.
Though starkly different from one another, what each of these websites have in common is a great deal of complexity that empower users to explore. It’s difficult to get right, so make sure you’re usability testing your website to ensure your audience is into it.
Think systematically about the story you’re telling
Nonlinearity typically involves greater user engagement as it’s more personalized and sometimes relies on the audience to cocreate narratives. Of course, that means you have to take a systematic approach to storytelling rather than thinking episodically - will it still make sense if you switch the pieces around? And how do the parts ultimately add up to the whole?
Seen.space is a bold website that explores the interplay between race, ethnicity and the creators’ careers told as a collection of DMs. Lastly, wtfff.nl tells the story of 5 young people who were blackmailed, shamed and abused for their nude photos based on how the user navigates the site. And let’s not forget TheOtherSideofTruth.com, which tells split narratives through both the world truth and the Russian perspective on the Russia-Ukraine war using brilliant interaction design that combine horizontal and vertical scrolling.
Departing from conventional ‘this then that’ storytelling through clever marketing and design is difficult to pull off yet powerful when done right. Challenge your agency to tell stories differently to captivate your audience’s attention.