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Primer Stories Saves the Internet from Itself One GIF at a Time

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GIF from "Operation Snow White" Primer. (Courtesy Primer Stories)

When was the last time an animated GIF left you breathless? (And not just because you were laughing so hard you couldn’t breathe.)

Whether you pronounce the file format with a hard G or a soft J, the medium is undeniable. GIFs often feature a series of still images ripped from popular videos to create an animated loop. The result is easily shareable and usually hilarious, but rarely an example of fine design.

Joe Alterio. Courtesy Primer&Co.
Joe Alterio. Courtesy Primer&Co.
Tim Lillis. Courtesy Primer&Co.
Tim Lillis. Courtesy Primer&Co.

This is where Joe Alterio and Tim Lillis hope to challenge your idea of what the internet should look like. The designers created Primer Stories in 2015 to share thought-provoking articles that integrate text and visuals for an interactive dual narrative. Based in San Francisco and Seattle respectively, Lillis and Alterio both draw inspiration from the Bay Area’s fusion of art and tech culture.

GIF from Denis Shekerjian's Primer "How to Build a Brain." Courtesy Primer Stories.
GIF from Denis Shekerjian’s Primer “How to Build a Brain.” Courtesy Primer Stories.

Lillis says, “We’re here at a time where there’s so much happening on the web and there’s a lot of excitement about new technologies and new techniques for storytelling, but at the same time there’s also a lot of sameness, there’s a lot of homogeneity.”

Building an editorial website on the West Coast, far from the publishing centers in New York City, D.C. and Boston, Alterio feels that Primer Stories has enjoyed more freedom to experiment and create a unique digital storytelling platform.

GIF from Matthew Glaser's "Crepuscule with Socrates" on Primer Stories. Courtesy Primer Stories.
GIF from Matthew Glaser’s Primer “Crepuscule with Socrates.” Courtesy Primer Stories.

Primer Stories features “Primers” written by experts for curious minds. Did you know at one point there were plans to seal off the San Francisco Bay? There’s a Primer on that.


Primer Stories prominently features Bay Area writers and professors. I especially recommend Matthew Glaser’s work including the beautifully moody “Crepuscule with Socrates,” and “An Adversarial Relationship with Time,” which includes an interactive personality quiz.

Primer Stories accepts submissions and takes great care in selecting Primers. Once they have a text, Lillis and Alterio begin brainstorming visuals with inspirations that range from New Yorker cartoons to cartography of the 1700s.

Using Webflow, a San Francisco web design platform, Lillis (who has a degree in industrial design) and Alterio (who has degree in animation) are able to create interactive designs with little coding experience.

GIF from the "Driftless" Primer on Primer Stories. Courtesy Primer Stories.
GIF from Matthew Battles’ Primer “Driftless.” Courtesy Primer Stories.

Surprisingly there are no credits for the visuals on Primer Stories. Alterio explains, “We really are trying to tell a very immersive narrative and so, the more that we can hide in a very tactile way, I think it provides a better experience.”

GIF from the "Buried Treasure" Primer on Primer Stories. Courtesy Primer Stories.
GIF from “Buried Treasure” Primer. Courtesy Primer Stories.

And while animation is just one of the visual tools Lillis and Alterio use to encourage reader engagement, Lillis says, “GIFs allow you to slow time down in a way, because you get to witness the same moment. It’s like Groundhog Day where you really get to explore the nuances of the story. For anybody who has read one of these stories and then sees that GIF elsewhere, it’s kind of like shorthand for the Primer.”

And while Lillis compares the advent of the Internet to that of the printing press, Alterio adds, “If we were in the pre-internet age, maybe, you know Tim and I would be sitting around xeroxing off fanzines and sending it out to Powell’s Books, but I don’t think that has nearly as much impact.”


In August, Primer Stories will release its fourth season with Primers on the theme of “change.” You can find more Primers on the Primer Stories website and a collection of Primer Stories GIFs on GIPHY.

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