When Is It Okay to Use Comic Designs? Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2011 at 2:42 PM

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Big news stories mean we suddenly see lots of interactive graphics and multimedia objects popping up everywhere — informational tools that help people explore, process, and distill the details about the events. This week’s Osama bin Laden news was no different.

Within 24 hours of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, dozens of interactive packages—illustrations, maps, graphic, video and timelines — were designed and published.

It’s always a great learning experience to pull together and review multiple projects covering a single event or story. Overall, the examples are similar in tone and style. Well, almost all of them.

For me, one stood out from the rest.


Check out this comic book, napkin sketch design that details the sequence of events.

Description: danderson-mbp:Users:danderson<img border=View the interactive graphic project


We’ve had some great discussions on using comic themes for course designs. And Tom also  blogged about designing the right look and feel for your courses earlier this week.

So what do you think?  Was this comic design the right look and feel for the topic?


Compare it with Cathy Moore’s graphic novel theme in Connect with Haji Kamal. Both projects are similar in their use of sketchy, hand-drawn elements. In the forums, Cathy described her course design as “edgy,” and notes that “it makes clear that the topic is serious.” Is the UOL interactive equally edgy and serious? 


Here are a few more questions I’m toying with as I view the project.


Design considerations

Is this an appropriate design for the seriousness of the story? It’s reported the attack was planned and rehearsed for months. Does the comic style emphasize the precision of the attack or the chaos of the moment? Both?



Does it matter when the project was produced? If the project were sketched hours after the event, would it be any more or less appropriate than if it were produced two days later? 


Finally, what types of guidelines or standards do you use when designing new or custom course designs? How do you know when a design theme is too much? Add your comments below or start a new forum discussion.



Post written by David Anderson



18 comments so far

Cathy Moore

34 posts

Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2011 at 10:51 AM

I think the quickly sketched drawing style is appropriate given the fact that the details are still coming out. The style also makes it somewhat more forgivable that details in the pictures don't jibe with the most recent version of events. The human quality of a handmade drawing also heightens the emotional component more than do the perfect computer-generated images of other interactives.

I'd like to clarify that my client, Kinection, came up with the graphic novel look for Haji Kamal. It was based on a graphic novel style they had used with great success on a previous course for police officers.

Even though these examples deal with serious military topics, I think that a non-cartoony illustration style would also work with more common business topics.

Tom Ashcraft

29 posts

Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2011 at 11:07 AM

From the url, it appears the graphic was published 110503 making it roughly two days after the event, but I don't think time matters. I see it as a deliberate design decision.

Slides 6 and 8 are appear less objective than interpretive. Do we know what the facial expressions were when the troops came in?

The camera perspective on Slide 6 is from Bin Laden's view, not the troops. Guns pointing at me is intimidating. Notice how Bin Laden's hands are up, surrendering and women are running from the guns. Feels biased in that regard.

I agree the sketchy aspect works. It's something we don't have all the details on and it's certainly a contrast from the average course.

User Rank Kevin Thorn

1,517 posts

Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2011 at 12:15 PM

I will attempt to answer your questions in the sequence asked:

The design fits appropriately for the seriousness of the event (story). The emotion would not be as dramatic if it were designed after Sponge Bob Square Pants!

As for the style representing the precision of the attach or if it represented a more chaotic approach is subjective. To your point, this was sketched based on the 'at-the-moment' information of what the media has shared. Anyone who has a remote understanding of the available details can immediately relate the drawings to the stories we have all heard in the media. I probably would have drawn these same sketches based on the perception of what I know the story to be currently.

The timing of this being released is 'probably' more effective a day or two later. Too early and the community (world at large in this case) is still caught up in the "moment" even if that moment lasts for a day. Too late and the risk of another story of the same or greater magnitude will surface taking the steam out of it. Think of William and Kate's royal wedding just last Friday. A forgotten story by Monday morning. Would a series of sketches telling the story of the royal wedding have any more or less of value if it were released Monday morning after this story broke? Timing is everything.

What I like about these drawings the most is the mere sketchy style of charcoal/graphite. That style suggests quick, fast thoughts which the artist is trying to convey with a story about a military commando raid.

The storytelling is a great example of sequential art and the sequence of events (as the artist knew them). The map first, then the aerial shot of the compound, and finally a closer look over the wall of the compound builds the anticipation that "we're going in."  Next we see the commandos rappelling out of helicopters while taking on ground fire. An explosion. The actual assault on Osama. The aftermath. Then...the closure.

These drawings look & feel like an animation studio's storyboard wall, too!

Thanks for sharing David. I think this may be the only place in the world that has a discussion around how the 'story' is told rather than event itself! :)

Sara Fromme

46 posts

Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Bravo, David!  Great questions.

User Rank Steve Flowers

4,072 posts

Posted Thursday, May 05, 2011 at 11:26 AM

I'll agree with Tom, I think the purpose of the series was to provide an interpretive illustration.

I think this style is fine for its apparent purpose but I'm left thinking there might be a more better way to illustrate the events. I wonder, in this case, how much value this adds over the text narrative. I wonder what the illustrator wanted to provide the sense of? Was it a sense of time, space, urgency... What was the illustrator trying to convey? Was it a simple illustration of key events?

For me, a more simple single infographic with some time indicators and action detail callouts would have provided stronger engagement. Regardless of illustration style or the license taken with the illustration (I also agree that there seems to be some sense of bias in the frame shown), an illustration should give you a sense of something and evoke a response.

The gravity wasn't there for me with these pieces. But I don't think it's the style of art that removed the gravity. I think in part it's my own style and sensibilities that counteract that field of engagement.

From a style evaluation standpoint I think this rapid sketch illustration is potentially very powerful. There's an argument in favor of less sophisticated media providing as much punch in select cases (note I didn't say all cases:)) as a polished piece. This factor is worth exploring.

User Rank Kevin Thorn

1,517 posts

Posted Thursday, May 05, 2011 at 11:49 AM

First, Steve offers an interesting idea I wouldn't have thought. A simple infographic would have provided a stronger engagement for him. If not for asking you to draw one, I'd be interested in seeing that ;)

Secondly, let's not miss what David was asking. His question about comic styles in learning and whether or not this style fit this story. Not so much about analyzing the artist and how he/she interpreted the story.

Aside from what we know and the contradictory media coverage now surfacing, or trying to analyze what the artist was thinking has zero to do with style the artist chose to convey the story. Bias or not, a commando raid in the middle of the night busting through a door, shooting, and asking questions later is...well, a commando raid. The angle, positioning of the characters, point of view, etc. is an effect to help carry the story to its climax. Which I think the artist did.

I'll agree its speculative, but he/she could have drawn that scene from an angle that we, the viewer were looking down the barrel of the weapon, with an Osama character and his alleged wife lying in bed asleep being shot in the back of the head. My point here is at the time of this drawing all we knew was Osama was killed with a head shot. Would my perception of that be any more or less bias if drawn at a different angle? Would it still tell the story? The 'content' was what it was at that time. The 'context' in which the artist drew it was choice.

Emotion aside: Did *this* style fit *this* story and would the timing of its release make a difference?

User Rank Steve Flowers

4,072 posts

Posted Thursday, May 05, 2011 at 12:19 PM

My comment was more "eye of the beholder" than trying to figure out what the artist was thinking. I think there are multiple touch points whenever a style of communication comes into play. One touch point is the field of engagement of the viewer / audience. In my case, this didn't do much for me in this context. That's not to say it wouldn't with a different execution or in a different context. So, for me, the style didn't fit this story regardless of timing. But I'm more than a little strange:)

But that's my style at play. I'm aligned more to the data elements of the events and interesting story points (some of which may have nothing to do with the bracketed event) than to the emotional nature of intense context. In this case it could have something to do with a lack of emotional connection to the event. An incompetent well-off old dude with a grudge against my country living in a cave half a world away never scared me. Maybe personal investment is a factor in emotional response (my attempt to analyze the impact / suitability of a style without emotion:P)

Dana Massin

4 posts

Posted Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:44 AM

I havent seen anyone mention how the first example sort of looks like Family Circus gone horribly wrong. Anyone?

Does the illustration suit the subject matter? I'd say no. It conveys the placement of people, and roughly how the raid took place, but it simply didn't feel right. My mind was torn between the familiarity of Sunday comics, and the depiction of a horrorific, real-life event. I would have been happier with stick figures, personally.

The graphic novel approach is much more suited to the serious nature of the content.

User Rank David Anderson

3,235 posts

Posted Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 12:25 PM

Wow and thanks for the really great comments!

@Cathy - I mentioned your course because it’s one of few projects I know has a loosely similar style. I agree the organic nature of the drawings give it a more human feel.  But unlike Haji Kamal's softer, hand-drawn style, this one seems to have a more agitating edge about it. Could it create learner fatigue in longer projects?

@Tom - Good points on the perspective and details of the graphics. I hadn’t noticed bin Laden in the corner when I first posted.

@Kevin - “What I like about these drawings the most is the mere sketchy style of charcoal/graphite. That style suggests quick, fast thoughts which the artist is trying to convey with a story about a military commando raid.”

That’s definitely a benefit from drawing one’s own graphics rather than forcing stock photos to tell a story. Great point!

How do you think that would transfer to instruction or less emotional content? Maybe it doesn’t make a difference.

@Steve - Right! There is a court-room sketch look that almost creates a sense of judgment or bias rather than reporting. Maybe that’s what prompted me to question the style in the first place.

User Rank David Anderson

3,235 posts

Posted Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:16 AM

@Dana - "My mind was torn between the familiarity of Sunday comics, and the depiction of a horrific, real-life event."

That comment and Family Circus reference really stayed with me yesterday. They also helped me with this handwriting font example:


While similar, each has its own voice and personality. I think that's one of the things that makes this project so interesting.

Would a softer pencil style make any difference? What about water colors?

User Rank David Anderson

3,235 posts

Posted Monday, May 23, 2011 at 8:50 PM

Here's another good example of comic strip storytelling in journalism:


My favorite: The boy who lived

Sam Lincoln

64 posts

Posted Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 4:01 AM

This is a great post! I think that there is sometimes a misconception that comics = childish. Anyone who thinks that needs to read either of the following books by Scott McCloud - 'Making Comics' and 'Understanding Comics'. He provides a really intelligent explanation of the importance of framing, the use of words, story flow and (really interesting) the importance of the gutter (the space between images) that allows the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. There's some really great stuff in these books to assist learning designers.

User Rank David Anderson

3,235 posts

Posted Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 7:34 PM

Great book recommendation Sam. I know a lot of folks speak highly of Understanding Comics. One thing I particularly like is the emphasis on readability. Considering most comics are both text-heavy and read-only formats, it's amazing how well they control the reader's eyes. Understanding Comics and general comic book design is essential reading for anyone looking to design better courses.

User Rank Bruce Graham

7,288 posts

Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at 1:40 AM

Here's something I created recently in "Comic Book" format - which was a piece of work required for a course.

It's a short overview of the "ARCS" model for instructional design.

I appreciate it is linear, however, it seemed an interesting and appropriate way to create the course, bearing in mind that ARCS is partly about how you stimulate learner interest and motivation.



Phil Kowalski

10 posts

Posted Tuesday, March 06, 2012 at 11:46 PM


great post although sometimes I feel a little bit strange about these severe events described in such an "easy" style.

However, seeing your post on the earthquake strips and the story "the boy who lived" this really touched me deep inside. What sacrifice! Thanks for sharing it with us.


Carla Ollero

35 posts

Posted Monday, August 19, 2013 at 6:34 AM

Thank you! Always nice to remember to look beyond our own industry to gain new inspiration.