Illustrating stories from Syria

Syria Stories banner

The news reports from Syria are dominated by casualty counts: 80 thousand… 90 thousand… 100 thousand people killed in the conflict. Syria Stories is a new online documentary project from the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) that aims to tell the stories of the ongoing Syrian civil war on a very personal, human scale.

Earlier this year, MBN contacted the Office of Digital and Design Innovation inviting us to help brainstorm, design and develop the Syria Stories site. The result is a collaborative project focused on sharing the stories lost in the daily reports of military strikes and casualty counts.

Six Syrians from across the country were selected to share their stories: Four men, two women from different ethnic, religious and family backgrounds from across the country.

But sharing these ongoing personal stories creates an unusual challenge: We can’t use the participants’ names or photos as long as the situation on the ground remains uncertain and potentially very dangerous. Doing so would put the participants and their extended families at risk.

The design challenge

It’s easier to relate to a story if you have a face to connect with the storyteller. How do you help readers form emotional connections with the participants while protecting their identities?

Because we were thinking about the dispatches as diary entries, we decided to try using hand drawn sketches to illustrate the posts. There’s a tradition of using artists to illustrate the news that stretches from the 19th century reportage artists through Robert Weaver and Alan Cober to the comics journalism of Joe Sacco. We were also inspired by George Butler’s reportage drawings from Syria.


In order to help readers connect with the participants, we wanted to create a unique portrait for each author. As we experimented with a range of styles and possible portraits, we talked about cartoonist Scott McCloud’s spectrum of representation from photorealism to abstraction and the way that effects how readers relate to the character.

We wanted to strike a balance with the portraits — making them specific enough that they reflected the individual stories, but not so precise that they implied that they were literal representations of the authors. The final drawings are based on the general biographic information we were provided for each participant.

Illustrating the stories

The Syria Stories project is being maintained by a very small editorial team. In order to illustrate the posts we needed to devise a system that would allow editors to easily repurpose drawings for new posts. We decided to create an evolving library of sketches for each participant with different expressions and poses that can be layered over blurred out documentary photographs from the time and region described in the posts.

Syria Stories: collage example 2

Syria Stories: collage example 1

Syria Stories: Walid

The drawings are saved as layered Photoshop files, separated into ink and paint layers that can be turned off or on depending on the background. In this way, we’re hoping to maximize the different illustrations that can be remixed from the library of drawings and photographs. As the participants continue to share their stories in the coming months, ODDI will provide ongoing design, illustration and development support to help visually tell their stories.

Read three sample posts from the Syria Stories project translated into English.

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Brian Williamson

Brian Williamson

Brian Williamson is the senior UX designer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @drawinghands.

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