Smarty Pants Book Club: Pictures that paint 1,000 words

September 28, 2015

The most recent Smarty Pants Book Club topic focused on visual storytelling. It’s an increasingly important part of what we do at Design Concepts. Visuals help us explain concepts to our clients and to the potential users of their products.

Industrial designer Rachel Wallace looks to the work of Scott McCloud when she needs inspiration for illustration style, visual perspectives or ideas on how to quickly convey emotion. Two of McCloud’s books are frequent references – Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Understanding Comics, written in 1993, is a seminal guide about the elements of comics style as well as the history and psychology behind it. Making Comics gets into the nuts and bolts of comics creation – choosing the right moments to illustrate, effectively using words and images together, and understanding body language and facial expressions.

We also explored the differences between comic books, which are episodes in a serial, and graphic novels that convey more continuous stories. Considering those differences, it’s no surprise that many television shows and movies found their inspiration in comic books. The amount of story presented in a comic book translates well to these other visual formats. Industrial designer Chris Harris brought in a stack of comic books to share. Here are a couple of his favorites:

  • Revival. A post-apocalyptic comic book series that’s set in rural Wisconsin, Chris likes that he knows the locations referenced in the story. The dialogue is written in a believable Midwest dialect, which adds to the reality of the series.
  • The Walking Dead. The comic book format provides a lot of room for character exploration, which translates well to the popular AMC television series. Although you might think of two formats telling the same story as repetitive, the experiences are quite different, according to Chris. Television shows you what’s happening. The comic book series tells you with its words and visuals. Chris enjoys both and that the comics aren’t spoilers for the television series (or vice versa).
Comics and graphic novels are a sequential art form and powerful way to tell a product story.

Usability and electrical engineerChad Schweitzer brought in a graphic novel that demonstrates how graphic novels can convey serious stories. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth uses words and visuals to tell the story of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s pursuit of the foundations of mathematics. Chad liked the novels self-referential writing, the color palette and its portrayal of World War II. The graphic novel conveyed in static form what would be a fascinating film. The visuals gave cues that helped the reader perceive the emotions of the characters. While it's less efficient storyteller than film, the graphic novel can be more specific. The reader has the ability to linger on images and pull meaning from them.

My selection was The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. It’s an interesting combination of traditional and graphic novel. A 12-year-old genius cartographer tells the story of his journey from his home in Divide, Montana, to the Smithsonian to receive the Baird Award. Each page has a block of text with maps and notes all over the margins. It’s like reading footnotes that give you a deeper understanding of this quirky kid. His maps, trying to navigate emotions and discoveries as well as geography, are much like the experience maps we use at Design Concepts. Honestly, I didn’t like the story that much but I liked the format. The book is being made into a film. It will be interesting to see how they take maps and communicate them in film.

So the next time you see a comic book or graphic novel laying around, open it up and give it a read. You’ll be surprised what you can discover.

— Written by Leah Ujda