In business, the art of storytelling is often confined to words and numbers. But there's power in visual communication. Done well, it can connect people; done poorly, it can alienate. That’s a lesson contemporary artist Sameh Khalatbari learned quickly, after moving from Iran to Silicon Valley.
Arriving in Northern California a decade ago, Khalatbari found herself being “liked” and “friended” on social media by people she’d never met. She’d expected the Bay Area’s technology to be quicker, better, and faster than Iran's, but was surprised that it wasn’t as successful in helping people connect as a simple phone call could be. The use of virtual communication — selfies in particular — seemed to be distorting and obscuring reality. Instead of connecting people, she felt the images were alienating people — from the world, from themselves, and each other.
In contrast, Khalatbari wants her visual creations to say something profound. "Every time I want to draw even a line, I will think about the concept — what I want to do with that line, what I want to tell,” she says. It’s an approach that can be adapted to the workplace: Every visual element, like every strategic decision, must have a purpose.
Visual storytelling can help a person or organization take a stand, communicate values, and connect with an audience on a deeper, more emotional level. Images aren’t always about aesthetics — they can be a foil for delivering complex information with every line drawn, color chosen, and story told.
Khalatbari’s latest show, “Alienation,” at Modernism West gallery in San Francisco, is a series of portraits in acrylic on canvas of women in black and white, all wearing colorful masks in the form of animals, from origami birds to cats to donkey ears. The images are a critique of the virtual masks people use to hide, bolster, or reimagine their identities in our digital world.
“I like the concept of the mask because I think that people are spending too much time on social media,” she said at the exhibition opening. “There's no real connection. And I think the next generation will suffer a lot because they are missing their social skills, and gradually we are losing our human characteristics.”
As Khalatbari reflects on the alienation and disconnection in our tech-savvy era, companies can also mirror and address the needs, desires, and challenges of their audiences. The lesson about visual storytelling is that it’s all about conveying complex ideas, emotions, and values in a way that resonates deeply and universally.
Take, for example, a show of Khaltabari’s earlier this year, “1401 N m2 Resistance,” that featured 12 abstract designs of tightly woven string. The art was her response to the protests over the September 2022 beating death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran, who was arrested for her opposition to the mandatory hijab for women and who died in police custody. Khaltabari chose string as a silent but potent form of activism, as a symbol of women’s hair, noting that “in Iran, hair is a permanent tool to suppress women.”
Images are more than aesthetic, says Khalatbari, noting "the message behind the piece is important." Some of the more powerful and iconic messages delivered by corporations have been through images, most notably Apple’s “Think Different” campaign featuring black and white images of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Albert Einstein. The images connected Apple to extraordinary thinkers and achievements.
Whether bringing activist art to the world or defining brand and corporate identity, visual communication can be compelling, meaningful, and impactful.
Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor at Alphy.