Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comic-Based Communication

These days, there are as many styles of documentation as there are of programming. Structured docs (waterfall model), topic-based writing (object-oriented development), less formal styles based around wikis (agile coding). Another one that I haven't seen given a name, is what I think of as comic-based communication.

If you grew up with comic books, fingers poised next to "continued on 3rd page", following the narrative jumping from panel to panel, then you probably don't have a problem understanding this style. Cinematic examples would be the first Hulk movie or the TV series 24, where the action sometimes splits into multiple frames that all run side by side for a few seconds.

I haven't found such presentation compelling in movies or TV. The origin story of comic-based communication is based around the printed page. So its heroic destiny probably lies with static images, either on paper or computer screen.

One buzz-worthy example is Google's overview of the Chrome browser. It was, ah, inked by well-known illustrator Scott McCloud. Scott's "Understanding Comics", "Reinventing Comics", and "Making Comics" are kind of the "Mythical Man Month" of the medium. (I could swear I read one of them, probably the last, all the way through on Scott's blog but I can't find it now.) Here's a talk from the 2005 TED conference with some history and examples. (Start at 7:43 to skip the biographical stuff.)

In the Google overview, we see a lot of principles that it's hard to do justice to in a blog post. There's Tuftean multi-dimensionality -- characters and dialog bubbles are positioned around or even interact with charts, symbols, and and bits of screen imagery from the Chrome UI. The "speakers" aren't intimidating because they look like cartoon characters. Their rotoscoped look also means we can't pick holes in their appearance. It someone looks geeky or sloppily dressed, hey that's just a mild caricature by the artist.

The overview touches on subjects that makes software companies nervous to address in documentation -- things are slow, they crash, they're insecure -- but illustrate those ideas with witty, exaggerated graphics. What competitor is going to cry foul, what customer is going to gripe, that you're slighting someone else's product or exaggerating your own merits? It's supposed to have a tinge of absurdity after all. This style could be used for conceptual information where you're just trying to impress certain points on people, and on troubleshooting information where you can exaggerate things that go wrong and responses to problems. I don't know if it would work as well for task or reference information. The presentation employs the same mnemonic tricks that good students use intuitively, to hook important facts and relationships to memorable images.

Every communication style needs its authoring and presentation tools. (Word, Powerpoint, Framemaker, Acrobat, Wiki, Wordpress, Firefox, and so on.) For authoring in comic style, there's the application Comic Life, for both OS X and Windows. You can put together a PDF, web presentation, various kinds of images, or Quicktime movie. You can lay out pages with various panels familiar from the comic book days, and place thought or speech balloons, letter boxes, and stylized logo/title text.

The essence of each panel is an image, which can be dragged, scaled, cropped and rotated. This presentation is fascinating to me, because I've spent so much time on traditional photography. In a typical photographic presentation, you need to pick the best pictures that are perfect in every detail; but don't use too many, because they'll be viewed one at a time, and your audience will get bored if pictures are too similar or the transitions are too fast or slow.

With a comic-style presentation, you only need to find an interesting section of the picture with the same general shape as the panel. It can be a narrow sliver or an irregular shape. The rest of the picture (which in real life might be overexposed or blurry) is left to the reader's imagination. Page layouts let you present similar pictures in the form of a narrative, so no need to pick a single best one. Or you can float foreground pictures over a background image, either with a similar theme or a stark contrast. Text presented as speech balloons or captions in a letterbox carries a different tone than bullet points on a Powerpoint slide; again, you can exaggerate, understate, and leave out details for the reader's imagination to fill in.

The examples on the right come from a trip through the Grand Canyon and Bryce and Zion national parks in Utah. It's been more than a year and I'm not nearly finished even a first pass through the pictures to put together a traditional slideshow. But with the slideshow reimagined as a comic book, new perspectives and narrative possibilities jump out.

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