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Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

As a comics enthusiast, a filmmaker, and animator choosing to read Scott McCloud’s “Understanding comics” (finally) was almost a no-brainer.  Prior to actually reading the book I knew it was a seminal work among comic artists, graphic novelists, and anyone who has ever had to work with storyboards,  but I found myself wondering why a book dedicated to such a static and narrative medium would be on the ITP reading list.  After the first few pages though I quickly realized that this was not a just a book talking about drawings with words.  Its book that uses comics as the focal point for an exploration of visual language and how a common visual language can work to make comics a viable form of communication and expression.  But, many of the ideas and principles outlined in this book are not exclusive to comics.  Many of the principles McCloud talks about are relevant to many different types of artists / designers / creators.

For example, one of the more universally applicable concepts he explores is how we read images differently as we move between realistic and iconic images.  And how we perceive those images to communicate emotions, concepts, and facts.  Below is a modified version of his example:

     The picture on the left is me in the ER, writing this blog post, wearing a baseball cap and a grey sweater, smiling while looking directly at the camera.  This picture will always be a picture of a very specific person, at a specific time, in a specific place  (me, during my shift, in the ER, writing this post).  Depending on the viewer, this picture may or may not have any relevance or any resonance.  Because the image is so specific it can be read in any number of ways.  It provides tons of visual information and more closely resembles reality.

The smiley face however is understood wide and far to be a symbol for a smiling human face.  Anyone who has seen a face will be able to extract meaning from the smiley face line drawing.  It is a universal icon.  It is not specific to me or any other single person.  Its an embodiment of the many experiences we’ve all had with smiling and the emotions that go along with those experiences and a stand in for the many possible “real” smiles (like my picture) that could have been portrayed. The word smile makes the jump from graphical representation to a more abstract representation.

The word SMILE bears no resemblance to an actual smile.  Its appearance is even more abstracted than the smiley face.  This abstraction is the power of the written word.  Everyone who can read the word has an understanding of the concept of a smile, and in one short stroke broad all encompassing meaning is conveyed.  But as McCloud discusses, because abstraction asks readers and users to operate on a more conceptual level, abstraction is probably not the most efficient way to convey a given “reality”.

So what does this all have to do with ITP?  Well.  I think as creators we are constantly negotiating how we use this principle based on our design needs.  The logos below are some already well documented examples of these principles in action.


Each of these companies has a plethora of options for branding or marketing.  Some of these companies employ tactics such as slick tv ads, billboards, celebrity spokespeople, etc., but at their core they always feature their most basic values in graphic form.  A smile and an arrow for speedy personalized service.  A television that plays whatever you want.  An arrow to show that this company ships your packages quickly and directly to your preferred destination.  Every webpage, box, invoice, and other visible surface (physical and digital) contains these reminders to reinforce those messages.  Icons, images, and words are carefully chosen, designed, and redesigned to reach the right balance of design in order to convey a distinct message visually.

The same principle applies when designing objects or technologies as well.   In Graham Pullin’s “Design Meets Disability”, Pullin discusses universality and simplicity from the perspective of designing objects.  He talks about the nature of simple design choices from a visual standpoint (one channel radio for dementia patients or the iPod shuffle )

But he also talks about design from a materials standpoint.  In his discussion of prosthetics he talks about how early users of these devices felt stigmatized because many of the preliminary models for each device were made out of either clear, pink, or brownish plastics, which for some users, especially in the case of hand/ arm prosthetics,  felt like a cold rubbery and sometimes smelly, failed attempt to mimic the actual limb.

Eventually new materials were introduced and both users and designers now had more choices.  And with the diversity of materials comes diversity of values.


Each material has its own iconic value.  A steel hook for a mechanical utilitarian feel.  Wood for a naturalistic/ earthy feel.  An extravagant gold plated hand.  Aluminum for sleek athleticism.  While not necessarily iconic in the sense of one visual queue representing the a broad idea, each material has a texture, weight, smell, and tolerance, that all add up to trigger very specific emotions and senses.

As designers and creators we work on a project we often have many options to consider whether it is visual, tactile, auditory, conceptual, etc.  We have many options to choose from within any given discipline or medium.  But we also have the ability to use concepts and techniques across all disciplines.  I think more than the power of iconography or any of the other topics he investigates (such as temporal relation, framing, spacial relations, workflow, communication, etc ) it is this cross pollinating of concepts that makes Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” a powerful and relevant read.   Throughout the book McCloud compares comics techniques, theories, and aesthetics to those of fine arts movements and literature.  But I would say that we can go further and open up comics to interpretation and appropriation to and from other forms as well as fine arts and visual media.

I think the experience of reading “Understanding Comics” while working on different projects helped me to expand my ideas both about comics and about designing for physical or digital interactions.  I think anyone interested in comics, basic art theory,  film, or maybe just someone who wants to read something different should definitely take a look through this book.

4 comments to Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

  • Nancy

    Excellent,e xcellent post. And great that you made the connection to the form factors of designing for disability. If I may, I might share this with Marianne. I know she would be interested.

  • David

    Thanks Nancy! Of course you can share with Marianne

  • Sam Brenner

    I guess this is another way in to the idea of “the medium is the message?” Which I think is funny in the discussion of comics, because despite there being a long, thriving “underground” or “alt” comic scene, I think its mainstream awareness is larger now than ever before. I know for me, and probably for others, this really challenges the notion of what exactly makes a “comic.” The idea of the webcomic, for instance: an easily-shared and generally easily-understood image. It’s no wonder they’re so popular.

  • etb273

    I like that you picked up on the “cross pollination of ideas”. In athletics its well known the power of pulling from other disciplines. It is known as cross training and it yields exe lent results as well as keeps muscles from reaching a point of diminished returns. It also is beneficial for muscle memory. The brain is just a muscle and can be views as the same. The more you use it and cross train it the better it will work.