Letter from the UK: Using Comics as a Medium for Technical Communication is No Laughing Matter

by Ellis Pratt on 9 December 2013

Cover of The DITA Man comicAs an experiment, at the end of July 2013, we released a free beginner’s guide to DITA in graphic novel (or comic) form. In the four months since then, and with little promotion by us, over 600 people have downloaded it. With our second graphic novel (a beginner’s guide to content strategy) published this month, the combined number of downloads is likely to pass through the 1,000 barrier in less than six months. For us, it’s been a stark lesson in demonstrating the comic format is a powerful and popular way to deliver technical content.

Of course, we’re not the first to use the graphic novel or comic format. Alan J. Porter claimed in a blog post back in 2010 that the most widely read piece of technical documentation in the history of the U.S. Army, officially known as “DA Pam 750-30 Operation and Preventative Maintenance of the M16A1 Rifle,” is a comic called “How to Love Your Rifle.”

A while ago, Google used the comic format: engaging Scott McCloud in 2008 to create a comic explaining the inner workings of their new Chrome browser.

Comics are also being used in healthcare. On the BBC News website, you’ll find an article called How comic strips are improving bedside manner, which reports medical students at The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago are encouraged to read graphic novels about experiencing cancer so that they can become more empathetic with their patients. Drawing cartoons is also part of their curriculum. The lecturer behind this course is one of the bloggers at Graphic Medicine, a website that “explores the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare”.

How hard is it for a technical communicator to create a graphic novel or comic?

This is the point where I’m tempted to say it’s really difficult unless you’re very skilled and very clever, but actually we found it remarkably easy to create the two we’ve published.

Graphic novels and comics are simply a medium in which images are used to convey a sequential narrative. As long as you can write a story—the sequential narrative—you should find it fairly easy. That’s because there are a number of easy-to-use applications that can convert photographs into comic-like images and then publish the end result as PDF and EPUB files.

We use a simple story structure. You’re introduced to a hero, who is then confronted by a scary dragon. The hero finds a magical weapon (DITA, for example!), which we explain to the reader. The hero slays the dragon and everyone lives happily ever after. For us, that’s basically it.

According to Neil Cohn, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, the pictures of comic strips are processed by our brains as another form of language, with their own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Cohn has outlined his theories in a book called The Visual Language of Comics. According to an article in The Observer, this narrative grammar includes:

“Establisher panels, which set up a scene; initial panels, which create a tension; peaks, which show the climax; and release panels, which undo the tension. Each has its own characteristics, and, like the words in a sentence, they have to follow a certain order.”

Scott McCloud has also dissected the way strips are constructed in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

Mezolith book coverIf you want to read a graphic novel to get a sense of how they look and are structured, I suggest you read Mezolith by Ben Haggerty. Even if you are not an avid reader of graphic novels (and that probably includes me), it’s still well worth reading this book. Not only is it a demonstration of what a good storyteller can do using this medium, it’s been described one reviewer as “something to put alongside Dickens or Steinbeck”.

What do you think?

We’ve only had one negative comment so far, that a DITA comic would be laughed at by a CEO. Other that, we’ve received positive feedback, including kind praise from STC luminaries such as Pam Coca, Andrya Feinberg, and JoAnn Hackos.

However, would you be willing to experiment with the graphic novel format? Please share your thoughts below.

Ellis Pratt is director at Cherryleaf, a UK technical writing services company. Ranked the most the influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is a specialist in the field of creating clear and simple information users will love.

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