Primer Stories wants digital storytelling to be beautiful

“Tell me the story. Make it look beautiful.” That’s all Joe Alterio, an artist and designer, says he asks of digital storytelling. When he did not find enough online that met his own standards, he started publishing his own. He and a co-founder have published twenty narratives set within vivid graphics and simple animations that borrow aesthetics from comic books, graphic art, and visual journalism. Its quirky topics range from the history of snake oil to the birth of pirate radio to a philosophical rumination on the chair as an engine of thinking.

Credit: Primer Stories.

Alterio is the co-founder of Primer Stories alongside Tim Lillis. Both are freelance illustrators with lots of experience in digital design. Together they design and code all the visual elements for their stories, which are mostly fairly short pieces written by writers solicited directly by Primer. “We reach out to folks we find fascinating and hope they agree to working with us,” says Alterio. He and Lillis build one story a week for each of Primer’s seasons. Last season, they published 20 stories. The next season launches May 15. 

What kind of stories is Primer looking for? “The most interesting things in the world,” Alterio tells Storybench, laughing. In truth, the Primer team accepts a wide, albeit random, range of stories from science to politics to film to architecture. Alterio attributes this range to his background in the zine world. 


Credit: Primer Stories.


“Our background is aligned with the punk rock ethos,” says Alterio. “I grew up with zines, where for a dollar you’d get a personal manifesto, disparate voices, different designs. We wanted to create a lending library of different, slightly esoteric topics of interesting things in the world.” Most of Primer’s stories are non-fiction though some creep into the realm of the fantastical.

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Science is one topic that Primer is keenly interested in highlighting. “We have lots of friends that are scientists,” says Alterio. “We asked ourselves: is there a way to pair a scientist with a deep level of knowledge with a designer and lay out the information in a beautiful way?”

Primer’s most recent story is about the marine worms that feed on whale carcasses on the bottom of the ocean. “Zombie, Bone-Eating, Harem-Keeping Worms” was written by Deb Chachra, a professor of materials science at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, at the request of Primer Stories. It shines a light on the virtually unknown world of deep sea life and moves the reader along with parallax slides, bold colors and graphics that complement—and enhance—the story.


Credit: Primer Stories.


The workflow at Primer is straightforward. After an author submits copy, it is copy edited into chapters, or “slices”, in Google Docs, after which Alterio and Lillis establish a design and color palette and then design all the images and GIF animations in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Finally, they use the website builder Webflow to create their visual narratives. (Alterio had used Webflow as a prototyping tool before realizing he could build a whole set of narrative stories with it.)

To day Primer has been a labor of love for the team: Joe Alterio, Tim Lillis and Steve Connell, their copy editor. They have yet to move beyond this proof-of-concept phase to a site that could make money. But they’ve started looking to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for funding and to various news organizations for partnerships. Right now, though, they just want to keep building cool things. They’re open to new writers, too, no matter your beat. And oh yes, it helps to be a bit off-beat, too. Says Alterio: “I want the strangest, weirdest people to be writing for this thing.”

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Aleszu Bajak

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