Learning from the art of comics
September 13, 2006
You know my philosophy: Keep reading and keep looking — we just never know where we'll find inspiration and knowledge if we open our eyes and go off the beaten path. If we embrace the "beginner's mind" and keep our mind "empty" then it's ready to accept anything for examination. It was in this spirit, then, that I purchased a book on (gulp) comics. I first heard of the book from Cliff Atkinson about two years ago. Dan Pink also mentioned the book in A Whole New Mind which I just read a few weeks ago. The book is called Understanding Comics: The invisible Art by Scott McCloud. I highly recommend that you get this book. Frankly, you're nuts if you don't add this book to your library. Seriously, stop what you are doing right now and buy this incredible book. I'm serious — do it right now. (I'll wait....) You back? Good. Believe it or not, many of the principles and ideas discussed in this wonderful and highly visual book parallel the art of presentation. Now, comics are not the same as a presentation enhanced by slideware, but if you read McCloud's book with an eye toward presentations or any other form of storytelling and graphic design, you will find many fundamental concepts and techniques that will surely help you think differently about the power of visual communication and the art of combining words and images. This book is not just for fans of comics — not by a long shot.
Amplification through simplification
McCloud explores many key concepts in his book. Chief among them from my point of view is the idea of "amplification through simplification." McCloud says that cartooning is "...a form of amplification through simplification" because the abstract images in comics are not so much the elimination of detail as much as they are an effort to focus on specific details. Says McCloud,
"By stripping down an image to essential 'meaning,' an artist can amplify that meaning..."
— Scott McCloud
McCloud says that "Cartooning is not just a way of drawing, it's a way of seeing! The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is I think an important part of their special power, both in comics and drawing in general." Specific applications will vary, of course, but we can apply the spirit of "amplification through simplification" to creative disciplines outside the art of comics.
A key feature of many comics is their visual simplicity. Yet, as McCloud reminds us, while casting an eye to the wonderful world of Japanese comics, "simple style does not necessitate simple story." Many people (outside of Japan) prejudge comics by their simple lines and forms as being necessarily simplistic and base, perhaps suitable for children and "the lazy," but not something that could possibly have depth and intelligence. Surely such a simple style found in comics can not be illustrating a complex story they say. However, if you visit coffee shops around Tokyo University — Japan's most elite university — you will see stacks and stacks of comics (Manga) on the shelves. There is nothing necessarily "stupid" about the genre of comics in Japan at all, in fact you'll find "brainiacs" in all shapes and sizes reading comics here.
Still, most people in, say, the U.S. have a visceral reaction to seeing comics and fail to understand them as anything but "low" art at best. Perhaps this reflects a hole in the education system in the U.S. Perhaps visual literacy needs to be taught along with other fundamentals. In any event, the situation today is that most people have not been exposed to the idea of making an idea or a visual stronger by stripping it down to its essence. Less always equals less in most people's eyes. If we apply this visual illiteracy to the world of presentations, you can imagine the frustration a young "enlightened" professional must feel when her boss looks over her presentation visuals the day before her big presentation and says "No good. Too simple. Good lord! You have not said anything with these slides! Where are your bullet points!? Where's the company logo!? You're wasting space — put some data in there!!!" She tries to explain that the slides are not the presentation but that she is the presentation and that the "points" will be coming from her mouth. She tries to explain that the slides contain a delicate balance of text and images designed to play a supportive yet powerful role in helping her amplify her message. She attempts to remind her boss that they also have strong, detailed documentation for the client and that slides and documents are not the same. But her boss will have none of it. The boss is not happy until the "PowerPoint deck" looks like "normal PowerPoints," you know, the kind used by "serious people."
Applying the amplification-through-simplification concept
In this 2004 cliff Atkinson interview with Scott McCloud, McCloud says that it is hard to give people concrete advice on how to use PowerPoint because each case is different. Nonetheless, it would be wise he says, for us to take advantage of "amplification through simplification" as much as possible. Beyond this, McCloud offers excellent advice for presenters:
"...trust in those aspects of what you have to say that excite you. Trust that they will excite other people. And try to distill for yourself what it is that seems urgent and potent in your topic. Have faith in your own passion for the subject. And if you have none, then consider a change of career. If you can isolate the aspects of your subject which genuinely excite you, then that can be the fulcrum for any number of effective points."
— Scott McCloud
I am not suggesting that you become an artist or that you should draw your own images. But I am suggesting that you can learn a lot about how to present images and words together by exploring the so-called "low art" of comics. In fact, although presentation visuals were surely the furthest thing from McCloud's mind when he wrote the book, we can learn far more about effective communication for the conceptual age from McCloud's book than we can from any book on PowerPoint. For example, early in the book McCloud builds a definition of comics and finally arrives with this, a definition he admits is not written in stone:
"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."
— Scott McCloud
It is easy to imagine, with some tweaking, how this could be applied to other storytelling media and presentation contexts as well. We do not have a good definition for "live presentation with slideware" but a killer presentation may indeed contain visuals which are comprised of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images." And many good presentations certainly have elements of sequence designed to "convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response."
And speaking of learning from comics
Checkout Wally Woods's 22 Panels That Always Work. Print this and hang it up near your desk for inspiration and guidance. The 22 panels were guides for comics illustrators, but they may also challenge you or inspire you to experiment with the way you display your visual information. For example, an application of "Big Head" and "Extreme Closeup" in my world is to make use of the entire screen and when possible making the slide space seem larger than it is. This effect can be achieved when you "bleed" images off the screen. With the ubiquity of digital still cameras and inexpensive-but-good stock photography there is no reason that one has to keep images tiny on screen.
Above. On the left is an actual slide used in one of my recent talks. On the right is the more "usual" way of presenting the text and image together.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have incorporated Dan Pink's "aptitudes for the conceptual age" in to part of my presentations on presentation design. To introduce Pink's aptitudes into my talk visually I first made the slide on the left (below). Yes, I know it's not very "visual" but I thought it would serve to summarize Pink's main points in one frame. Now, my application of the idea of "amplification through simplification" is different than what McCloud was talking about in Comics, but the basic idea is there. In some ways the revised slide on the right is more complex, but from the point of view of its Gestalt, it's more powerful, simple, and easy to grasp quickly. The first bulleted slide has 40 words; revised slide has 24. The revised slide is by no means a work of art or even the best possible graphical representation of the six key aptitudes, but it is far more visually supportive of my verbal message. And it was simple to do.
(Left) Yuck. (Right) Not great, but much better.
Scott McCloud: The Zen Master of comics
At the end of the book, McCloud gives us some simple, Zen-like wisdom. He's talking about writers, artists, and the art of comics, but this is good advice to live by no matter where our creative talents my lie. "All that's needed," he says, "...is the desire to be heard. The will to learn. And the ability to see." This to me is the essence of his book.
When you get right down to it, it always comes back to desire, the willingness to learn, and the ability to really see. Many of us have the desire, it's the learning and seeing that's the hard part. McCloud says that in order for us to understand comics we need to "...clear our minds of all preconceived notions about comics. Only by starting from scratch can we discover the full range of possibilities comics offer." The same could be said for presentation design. Only by approaching presentations and presentation design with a completely open mind can we see that the options are virtually endless. It is just a matter of seeing.
• Scott McCloud's website
• Scott McCloud's "The Making Comics 50 State Tour"
• How to make illustrations even if you can’t draw (Eirikso.com)
• How to avoid making boring presentations(Eirikso.com)
• Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work
• Can't stop laughing at this PPT-related cartoon (what's that say about me?)