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Visual Design for Instructional Content (Part II)

First published April 09, 2001 by Venkat Rajamanickam (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address))

In Part I of the article we analyzed Edward Tufte's principles of visualizing information.

The second part of the article explores the use of comics as instructional content with specific reference to the work of comics creator and theoretician Scott McCloud. Again, while searching for information on the use of comics in instruction, we did not find many resources on this topic. This short article is an attempt to initiate a discussion on the possibilities and pitfalls of using comics in learning.

What are comics?

"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response from the viewer."
-- Scott McCloud's definition of Comics

Comics are really just visuals supplemented (or complemented, ideally) by text. McCloud's idea is that for comics to function as a unified language, the words and the pictures should function in a similar way. In his book 'Understanding Comics' he makes the distinction between 'received' and 'perceived' information:

Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to get the message. The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.

In McCloud's theory of comics, the idea of iconic images is a central premise, a kind of building block on which his other discussions depend. The basic idea is that, in comparing relatively cartoonish styles of drawing with relatively realistic ones, McCloud finds that the cartoonish styles have inherent advantages.

He believes that cartoons resemble our non-visual self-awareness, so we inherently identify with them, whereas we react to a more realistically drawn character as being apart, other from ourselves. He says that cartoons are conceptually closer to words than realistic portrayals are, and therefore words and cartoons are closer to a 'unified language'.

He also contends that because cartoons exist in the realm of ideas, the transition from one panel to the next flows 'seamlessly,' but realistic drawings are seen more as a series of 'still pictures.' He doesn't dismiss realism altogether, suggesting its use in portraying 'the beauty of nature.' And he concedes that it is all a matter of taste. But he clearly thinks it represents good intentions that have 'conspired against comics receiving the unified identity it needs.'

Comics are participatory

One of the major requirements for any instructional content to be effective is that it should engage its audience actively. When the reader interacts and participates with the content he/she begins the process of learning. Comics let readers do precisely this.

Will Eisner feels that this is a medium that requires intelligence on the part of the reader. It requires a contribution, participation. This does not occur in movies, for example. This is the prime difference between comics and film: Film is a spectator medium, while comics is a participatory medium. You participate, your reader contributes to it, and you have a sort of dialogue with the reader. And the reader is expected to draw out of his or her life experience the things you're suggesting or alluding to.

This is a view echoed by others as well. Steve Conley feels that comics are all about contrast and letting the reader do the work. Comics creators and critics have long recognized that a comics caption that simply describes the action of the panel is less effective than a caption that contrasts the image. This was a hint to the true strength of comics. The greater the contrast, the more the reader must assemble the conflicting elements and the deeper the impact on the reader.

An example of the contrast within a panel: The Far Side - the picture may be cute and the caption may be funny but together they combine in the reader's imagination to create a third BIGGER idea - larger than the sum of its parts. Larson brings the dynamite and the match together and the reader does the rest. Absolut Vodka ads do the same thing and are - by this broader definition - comics.

Comics explain processes

Since comics are sequential in nature, they lend themselves very well to processes, to explanation. An independent visual - an illustration or photo can exist by itself and lends itself to a single thought. Comics, on the other hand is a series of visuals that can illustrate or explain a process.

Some learn and understand better from words while others from images. Comics combine both in a unified language. If you have a complicated process to explain or a complex sequence of information to communicate, comics are ideal vehicles. Increasingly, from editorial illustrations to explaining how to file you tax returns are being presented through comics.


Difficulties in using comics for instruction

Although comics are very effective for instruction, there are some stumbling blocks for it to be used widely:


There was a time, some years ago, when both parents and educators felt that comic strips had no place in any classroom. Some felt that such material would lead to both mental and moral stagnation. Will Eisner remarked that, "For reasons having much to do with usage and subject matter Sequential Art has been generally ignored as a form worthy of scholarly discussion." But that is changing. The need for conveying instruction on the Web, succinctly and at the same time interestingly, will only accelerate this change.


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