Comics Can Make You A Better Communicator

By Alan J. Porter

Alan J Porter

Alan J Porter

Do you read comics? Even if you don’t want to admit it, I bet you do. In fact, most people read at least something in comics form almost every day even if they are completely unaware of it.

When I utter the word ‘comics’ most people immediately think of spandex clad superheroes, talking animals or a gang of perennial teenagers who never seem to graduate high-school. There is a common misconception that comics are a genre with a limited range. They aren’t. In fact they aren’t a genre at all.

Comics are a medium. Just like film, theater, prose, poetry or any other process of telling stories comics can be used to convey all sort so information about a wide variety of subjects to multiple audiences. Comics can make you laugh, cry, gasp in wonder, shake in terror and they can also make great instruction manuals, training aids, white papers, or any other type of business or technical communication you can think of.

Superheroes are often what people think of when they hear the words 'comic book', but comics as a communication medium are not limited to fictional characters nor are they only created for entertainment purposes.

Superheroes are often what people think of when they hear the words 'comic book', but comics as a communication medium are not limited to fictional characters nor are they only created for entertainment purposes.

The word ‘comic’ has an unfortunate connotation of suggesting that the medium is inherently lacking serious intent. This is just a mishap of language specific to the English speaking world. In other parts of the world what we call comics are known by a variety of names, most of which emphasize the medium as an art form.

So what do I mean when I talk about the medium of comics?

'Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art' by Scott McCloud

'Understanding Comics' by Scott McCloud

In his ground breaking book “Understanding Comics” theorist Scott McCloud proposes the following definition of comics:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

While accurate, that’s quite a mouthful, so I prefer a simpler interpretation. – I define comics as a graphic medium in which images are utilized in order to convey a sequential narrative.

In other words comics are the combination of art and literature.

tapestryThey are also the most enduring and effective form of communication yet devised by man. Comics represent the oldest continuous form of communication in history. If you take the idea of a comic being a sequential narrative, then certain cave paintings are comics, as are a large proportion of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In more recent history the Bayeux tapestry telling the tale of the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 is also a comic strip.

Why is the comics medium so enduring?

  • Studies have shown that humans as a species are hard wired to understand certain sequences of symbols and icons. We understand the basic language of comics on a fundamental level.
  • Comics can transcend language and cultural boundaries. Outside of the Anglo/American cultural sphere comics are the most widely read medium.
  • Even the CIA consider comics as the most powerful communications medium, most of the propaganda leaflets drops over the years have been in the form of comics.

Comics have been used by the U.S. Armed Forces for many years to convey instructional informatio to soldiers

Comics have been used for many years to convey instructional information

There is also a long and successful history of using comics and comics techniques in various types of business and technical communications. Consider the following examples:

When Google launched its Chrome Browser the accompanying technical documentation was a widely distributed comic book.

The most widely read piece of technical documentation in the history of the US Army officially known as “DA Pam 750-30 Operation and Preventative Maintenance of the M16A1 Rifle” is a comic book better known by the troops as “How to love your rifle.”

Comics are used to help educate visitors to the European Organization for Nuclear Research

Comics are used to help educate visitors to the European Organization for Nuclear Research

The visitors guide for the European Organization for Nuclear research is a comic.
Comics have been produced on all the major sciences including DNA research, paleontology, philosophy, just to name a few.

In my library I have examples of Japanese comics telling the corporate history of 7-Eleven and the product history of the Datsun 240Z car.

The graphic novel version of the official 9/11 report outsold the prose version.

[Editor’s Note: Comics have also played a role in spreading religious messaging. A quick search of Google yields examples from the Jewish faith, The Mormon Church, the Catholic faith, and others.]

So what can we learn from studying the comics medium?

Sequence – the fundamental backbone of comics is the idea of sequence, that one image follows another to impart information to the reader. Most technical documentation is also built on sequence and structure, yet often that sequence is ignored, or jumps in logic occur that confuse a reader. While working out the sequence of steps for a procedure just think if someone had to draw this sequence as a comic strip, do they have enough information to do so, have you covered each step? Instead of overloading your reader or end user with information, just show them what they need to know at that given point, one step at a time.

Comics can be used to show users what they need to know, avoiding information overload.

Comics can be used to show users what they need to know, avoiding information overload.

Narrative – The second fundamental of comics is the idea of narrative. Narrative should drive and guide the reader / user along on a journey. All communication is story telling (and that is perhaps meat for a future blog post), and in story telling your narrative must have a beginning, middle and end. Even if you use a topic based authoring approach like DITA, each topic should be a ‘story’, the reader should be guided through the information and know more at the conclusion than they did at the start.

Narratives are used to guide the reader along a journey.

Narratives are used to guide the reader along a journey.

Symbols / Icons – The language of comics is built on symbols and icons, and as I mentioned earlier we, as a species, are culturally hard wired to understand many icons. For instance the smiley face icon transcends cultures and is instantly understood even by people who have never seen it before. Comics have developed their own visual short hand that also seem to be universal, such as the speech balloon. Think about the use of icons and symbols in your documentation, they can speed up comprehension and drastically reduce translation costs. But beware, while many symbols are cross cultural – others are not.

Symbols and icon speed up comprehension and drastically reduce translation costs.

Symbols and icon speed up comprehension and drastically reduce translation costs.

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10 Responses to “Comics Can Make You A Better Communicator”

  1. Brenda Huettner January 9, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    YES, this is a great article that summarizes a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ll be pointing people to it regularly! I’d add one more book to the Recommended Reading section: Dan Roam’s “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures”.

  2. scottabel January 9, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Thanks for the feedback, Brenda. Alan did a great job on this. And, I predicted you’d be first to comment on it. :)

    Scott Abel
    The Content Wrangler

  3. Karen January 10, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    This article makes me glad I missed Alan’s presentation at the STC Atlanta conference in 2009 – I would have hung out in the Q&A session for hours and hours! 😛 There is so much to discuss here.

    “Just thinking about the way that comics work can improve your existing communications.” – Yes, the inspiration. It is crucial that people look at everything because inspiration *will* jump out and hit you on the head, and you will be the better for it! I cannot define the term “everything” more specifically because you cannot know in advance what will inspire you.

    I second Brenda’s Back of the Napkin suggestion as a “getting started and stop being uptight about your drawing skills” book.

    Another great comic example is Duke University’s comic about fair use and publc domain:

    Ah, I wish I could send this article back in time to my mom, the schoolteacher. She disapproved of comics. In the mid-sixties, a bank in Marshalltown, Iowa, gave away Marvel comics – with a cover full of bank ads, of course. I loved them, and I think my mom grudgingly approved because they came from a bank. But they were not proper literature and didn’t count as reading. That attitude only increased my desire to read them!

  4. Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler January 11, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    Karen: Wow. Thanks. I know Alan appreciates the feedback. And, I bet your mom would appreciate the value of comics as a communication medium should you share this with her.

    Thanks for the feedback. Please share this article with your mom and anyone else who might benefit from it.

  5. bencurnett January 14, 2010 at 7:09 am #

    Ditto on Back Of The Napkin. The first section of that book describes an entire ontology of visualized writing similar to the ideas that Alan explains here, in greater depth.

    This is incredibly worthwhile info that businesses can put to use. Specifically, we have clients in the tourism industry that can and do benefit in a big way from these ideas. I just wrote a coloring book for one of them. Looking forward to more comics projects.

    @karen BTW, I buy tons of comics for my son. Most of his Christmas reading came from this boingboing list Awesome reading there!


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