See What I Mean Blog

How to Use Comics to Communicate Ideas

Posts written by Kevin Cheng

  • Book Release

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    I’m pleased to announce the release of my book, See What I Mean. Whether you’re a fan of comics as a communication tool, or just looking for new ways to communicate your product, process, or ideas, I think you’ll enjoy this book. The book will be on sale on Rosenfeld Media starting around tomorrow and there will also be digital, Kindle-friendly versions available there. We prefer if you bought direct, but if you are so inclined, leave a review over on Amazon, as that will help with visibility of the book!

    It’s been a long road leading up to this book, from the first Dragon Ball Z manga comics I drew as a kid, to drawing a comic for my undergrad engineering newspaper, to announcing the book back in 2008, finishing the first draft in the woods, and finally, completion.

    Thanks to everyone’s support, in particular my wife Coley’s, and for those who’ve been asking for this book, thanks for your patience. I hope you like it.

    Comic to Explain XHTML 2 and HTML 5

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    Many readers may not know about the confusion between terms like XHTML 2 and HTML 5. If you are at all into web design or web development though, you might be aware of some fuss around these two terms and what they mean for the community and practitioners. I certainly was.

    My friend Jeremy Keith wrote a fantastic article explaining the whole mess in a very clear fashion. He even gave great analogies like my favorite comparison of Java to JavaScript as ham to hamster.

    However, written as well as it was, I still found that it was quite a lot to process in the form of an article. Enter Brad Colbow, artist behind “The Brads“, who decided to transcribe Jeremy’s article in comic form and it immediately became a much more engaging and fun read.

    Smashing Magazine has the entire comic posted:

    Communicating Concepts With Videos

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    Although See What I Mean is about communicating product ideas with comics, I am always interested in alternative means to do the same. In particular, it’s interesting to look at alternative medium and compare the strengths and weaknesses to comics.

    For example, video is a very powerful means of communicating ideas and concepts. It’s the epitome of what comics convey–a vision of the future and end product within the context of use. The problem usually lies in the production cost both in skills and time.

    This collection of videos used to communicate user experiences compiled by Adam Little is a great showcase of how powerful videos are and how much effort they can be.

    8 Ways to Explain the Economic Crisis

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    There are so many ways to explain things. Words, pictures, words with pictures, moving pictures, moving pictures with voice, just voice, or moving people with voice (movies).

    A study by Siegel+Gale found that 75% of those surveyed believe complexity played a major role in the current financial crisis.

    > “Three-quarters of survey respondents (75%) say that complexity and lack of understanding have played a significant role in the current financial crisis.”

    Fortunately, when it comes to the financial crisis, there’s no shortage of explanations. As I’m writing a book on using comics to explain ideas, I was initially drawn only to the comic explanations but as I researched further, I found a slew of great explanations across various medium. Looking at them together really helped me pick out the strengths and weaknesses of each. I’ve decided to put together these explanations here.

    1. The Subprime Primer: Comic / Slideshow
    From comes a low fidelity (and lowbrow) walk-through of how a “stinky” mortgage goes from Ace Mortgage Broker’s to the RSG (“Really Smart Guys”) Investment Bank in the form of a slideshow/comic. Unfortunately, while entertaining, it doesn’t paint the whole picture.

    The Subprime Mortgage Primer

    2. This American Life: Radio / Podcast
    There are two episodes of This American Life, both of which include great insights and explanations into the crisis. The primer, “The Giant Pool of Money“, was coproduced with Planet Money and is definitely one of my favorite explanations. They have a follow-up episode, entitled “Another Frightening Show About the Economy“. It never ceases to amaze me how this show manages to tell such intricate stories and explain complex concepts with audio alone.

    3. Informed Trades Crash Course: Video
    While the explanation is quite detailed, the use of video here isn’t harnessed at all here, making it little more than an audio track. Few audio tracks challenge ‘This American Life’ in their clarity.

    4. Economic Meltdown Funnies: Comic
    A donation supported graphic novel that is a co-production of Jobs with Justice and the Institute for Policy Studies — Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Tales of the meltdown as narrated by a Bison… or a Buffalo depending on which page you’re reading.

    5. The Crisis of Credit: Animation and Voice
    A fantastic independent project from designer Jonathan Jarvis maximizes the utility of video–moving the diagrams and talking over them to help explain process and flow. If you enjoy this style, you’ll also like Common Craft’s economics series.

    6. Diamond and Kashyap: Interview
    The Freakonomics blog on New York Times has an interview with Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap, two University of Chicago Booth School of Business professors about the details of the economic crisis.

    > “Fannie and Freddie were weakly supervised and strayed from the core mission. They began using their subsidized financing to buy mortgage-backed securities which were backed by pools of mortgages that did not meet their usual standards. Over the last year, it became clear that their thin capital was not enough to cover the losses on these subprime mortgages.” more

    7. Two Cows: Text / Analogy
    The Business Insider took the simplest route they could think to explain the AIG meltdown: describing it with a story of two cows.

    > “A third of the country goes vegetarian.

    > You thought your two cows were worth $200 and now they are worth $140.” more

    8. Don’t But Stuff You Cannot Afford: Video
    Still confused? Perhaps this book will help.

    Bonus. Degrees of Hank Paulson: Visualization
    This just came this morning from Stephen Anderson. A visualization of how U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is connected to the CEOs of the various banks.

    Degrees of Hank Paulson-1.png

    Tell Your Friends: See What I Mean Workshops

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    I’m speaking at two events in the next month. The first is VizThink, a conference on visual thinking. The talk there will be a short 90min hands-on session. The conference is fantastic and includes many experienced and talented visual thinkers. Register with the promotion code FCKC01 for $200 off the registration.

    The other event is a more comprehensive full day workshop at the ASIS&T IA Summit 2009. However, there is also a strong possibility that this workshop will not happen if there are insufficient registrations. If you’re interested in the workshop, I encourage you to look into registering before the early bird deadline which is this Friday!

    My full day workshop covers a lot of the material that will be in the book in a very hands on manner. Here are some quotes from participants who have attended prior workshops:

    “The most important thing I learned was that comics can be useful — seriously I need to get this into my official toolbelt of tools.”

    “There was a nice balance between theory and practice.”

    “He got everyone past the fear of drawing.”

    The technique is one being employed at companies like eBay and Google as well as agencies like nForm and Adaptive Path. Anna-Christina Douglas, Product Marketer for Google Chrome, said,

    “[Comics] let us illustrate what was really happening with the technology in an abstract and digestible way. If we just had a white paper, very few people would have read it.”

    For those of you that have some concerns, here’s a few common questions I get:

    I don’t know how to draw. The workshop teaches how to use tools or simple patterns to get ideas across. If you can draw a square, even an ill formed one, you’ve got all the pre-requisites you need.

    I’m not a designer. As Google has illustrated, the medium is useful for marketing as well as design. In addition, product managers and engineers have found it to be a great tool for specifying the product’s features at a high level.

    I’d love to but I can’t convince my manager. Comics are being used in organizations of all sizes because they save money and time. They get the point across quicker, they paint the big picture and most importantly, they help your team get on the same page early on so they’re not building the wrong thing later.

    I’m very excited about giving this workshop again but as I mentioned, this can only happen with your help. If you can’t make it, do spread the word to those whom you think might enjoy such a workshop. Once again, register for the pre-conference workshop before the Friday early bird deadline!

    In Plain English

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    I’ve long been a fan of the couple at Common Craft. They make a series of videos called “In Plain English”. In their own words:

    “Our videos are short, simple and focused on making complex ideas easy to understand. We use a whiteboard-and-paper format we call Paperworks that is designed to cut out the noise and stick to what matters. “

    I’m a frequent user of Twitter (you can add me @k) and found myself explaining the service to my dad recently. Instead of trying to explain the intricacies with a detailed email, I realized that “Twitter In Plain English” was the perfect solution:

    I find it slightly ironic that their series is called “In Plain English” because it’s the animations, the simple diagrams and the medium that does the bulk of the work of explaining concepts for them.

    Common Craft has found a market for people who need complex ideas distilled to very digestible and understandable formats. Whether it’s videos like theirs or creating a 6-panel comic strip, the hard part isn’t even creating the document itself — it’s in the rigor and skill needed to simplify the complex.

    In See What I Mean, I will not only explain how to create the art for comics but also how to cut down to the essence of a message.

    The Way We Work

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    A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Entertainment Gathering 2008, a conference founded and organized by TED founder Richard Saul Wurman.

    One of the highlights of the conference was David Macaulay, the author of The Way Things Work and The Way We Work.


    For those who are not familiar with his book, they are illustration masterpieces that explain difficult concepts with simple diagrams and analogies. At EG, David spoke about his 6-year long process of learning about the human anatomy and experimenting with various ways to explain the inner workings of the body.

    Sometimes, his drawings looked like simplified anatomy diagrams found in biology books but often, he used unexpected styles and objects to convey his explanations. For one portion, he may elect to use pulleys and gears while elsewhere, he may use architectural drawings or even analogies to trampolines to get an idea across. The detail and range of his art shows the thoughtfulness that went into the production.

    I also had the privilege of speaking with David about See What I Mean and his first response was a very encouraging, “it’s about time!” If you’re looking for some last minute gift ideas, I recommend you check out his latest book.

    How to Draw a Car

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    Dave Gray, founder of XPLANE and the VizThink conferences, is experimenting with teaching what he calls visual literacy. As part of that, he is trying to teach people how to express themselves visually and has a video about how to draw a simple car.

    Dave is definitely part of the movement to revive the visual language and remind everyone that drawing is not a mystical art left to “artists” but instead, is a tool that we can all use.

    Comic Review: Akoha

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    A few weeks ago, I mentioned a few examples of companies using comics to convey an idea or product to their potential customers. One such company is the “social reality game” called Akoha. They use a short comic strip on their homepage as well as a longer story that describes their product in depth.

    While this is a critique and will cover a number of negative points about the comic, I want to emphasize that even in its current form, it is much more understandable and likely to be read than any other marketing or product tour they might have used instead.

    Akoha not only uses a comic for their product tour, they also feature a comic strip prominently on their homepage. It would be difficult for me to fault such a decision given my own application of the same for the company I work at. However, a couple of minor points could be improved upon.

    Akoha Homepage.png

    Firstly, if you look at the screenshot, the first thing you probably read was the comic. It’s easy to believe that introductory text should precede the comic but once viewed from afar, it’s immediately evident that the comic strip is the first, and possibly only, thing a new visitor might read. If support copy is necessary, I’d recommend putting that underneath the comic instead so that it’s read immediately following the end of the comic.

    Secondly, in terms of the details of the comic, I think they use the right amount balance between detail and abstraction. Their cards aren’t incredibly detailed so you don’t focus on them. Instead, you’re focused on the story flow which is much more important in this case. However, in the final panel, it didn’t occur to me until I read the comic for the third time that it was not a depiction of the card but, in fact, an iPhone instead. One way to solve this confusion would have been to add more detail to the iPhone but instead, perhaps even just a zoomed-in view of a map would have sufficed. A map is easily recognizable by readers and most probably also know that maps can now be viewed on almost any device.

    Lastly, the dialogue in the second panel is unclear in terms of what order the dialogue is being spoken. Further, the dialog itself is not very descriptive of what is happening. I think one could probably condense the first page or two of their product tour into a homepage 3-panel comic strip.

    Based on what little I know about the company and their product, I might try a comic scripted liked this:

    Panel 1
    SCENE: TODD sitting with HARLENE at what is clearly a café.
    CAPTION: Todd, a master Akoha player, buys Harlene a coffee.
    HARLENE: Oh, what’d you do that for?

    Panel 2
    SCENE: EXTREME CLOSE UP of TODD’s hand holding an AKOHA CARD. Only the title is visible.
    CARD TITLE: Buy a friend a coffee
    TODD (from off panel): I’m playing this Akoha pay-it-forward card.

    Panel 3
    SCENE: CLOSE UP of a map with lines and points like an Indiana Jones movie, perhaps with one or two UI elements to indicate it’s a screen.
    CAPTION: “You can see this card has traveled through 40 people …”
    LOWER CAPTION: “… and now I’m passing the card to you, Harlene!”

    In another blog post, I’ll talk a bit more about writing comic scripts and translating those to art. For now, I leave it up to you to visualize what this comic might look like and I will do a rough sketch of it in a later portion of the review.

    If you’re finding these reviews useful, please let me know in the comments. I’d also appreciate any suggestions for posts you’d like to see here as I develop more and more of the book!

    Wordless Diagrams

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    I recently moved apartments with my now fiancée Coley. In the process of unpacking, we discovered each others’ book collections. While she was probably astonished at the sheer number of graphic novels I had, I was intrigued by many of her design and art books. In particular, one stood out to me as being both beautiful and yet relevant to the comic medium.

    Wordless Diagrams

    The book, Wordless Diagrams, is by Nigel Holmes who is the former Graphic Director of Time magazine. In the words of the synopsis:

    Award-winning illustrator and graphic designer Nigel Holmes depicts the things we do every day like you’ve never seen them before.

    Pruning a rose or building a sand castle might seem like a common activity, but when you see them visualized on paper in wordless, step-by-step diagrams, you’ll discover them anew.

    Imagine a LEGO or Ikea instruction manual mashed with a Survival handbook and you’ve got something close to this book. Comics are also known as sequential art and this book is a great example of how powerful sequential art alone can be.