UX Bookclub Edinburgh: Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

A decade ago, while doing a school English project on the language of Peanuts vs Footrot Flats comics, I picked up Scott McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' and was blown away by his thoughful unpacking of a so-called 'childish medium'. What would I think of the book today? We took a look at it at tonight's UX Bookclub Edinburgh. Our small group of readers came at it from a range of angles including working in UX, teaching visual language, and just being interested in it all (OK, that last one was me).

One of the key things McCloud discusses, aside from a proper definition of comics (below):


is the role of abstraction in terms of comics and relatability. He argues that the more simplified the image (e.g from picture to similey face) the more we project ourselves into the image. This is strongly noticeable in Art Speigelmann's Maus, a story of the author's Holocaust survivor father. It shows all the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

Fellow bookcluber Dave Wood recently read it for the first time. He believed that reading it now after years of holocaust films and media has perhaps diluted its effect, as he didn't feel the need for the abstractions, but friends who had read it on its release in the 80s really did feel that the format helped them empathise and relate. I personally think it helped when I read it in the early noughties.

What those academically-focused people noticed about McCloud's book is that he introduces a lot of concepts — semiotics, film theory, phenomenology — without ever using the terms. While we initially thought that might be an oversight, we decided that this could well be deliberate, for it means that the book can be read on a number of levels.

For example, phenomenology:


While you could argue that a bit of referencing might have been helpful, not having it makes it more of a read than a struggle.

One thing that is notably missing from the book is a mention of European comics. McCloud mentions the usual suspects (Asterix and Tintin) but aside from that his work compares American to Japanese structures. Again, this is probably a feature of the book in him writing about what he knows. He also has high praise in the appendix for a book on European comics so perhaps believes we should just read that instead.

Even the writing on Asian comics is fairly light (though what is there is illuminating), but you do have to keep in mind that the book was written in 1993 before Pokemon and Dragonball Z or even the internet.

Understanding Comics isn't a book to be read in one go: it's more of a collection of chapters (of which the last two could probably have gone).

In terms of UX, there weren't that many things that were directly useful — though that framework about levels of fidelity did seem a bit familiar, eh, Dan Roam? — 


but there were certainly elements to think about, such as the concept of closure in both a visual and sequential sense,


and how we can assume certain structures when we're in a format. I particularly liked his sections on the different type of frames, perhaps film school 101 but very easy to read


and I similalry liked his parable on the steps to mastery in comic design 



It also gave some useful thoughts about visuals and personality: works done with brushstrokes are very different from those with sharp straight edges (I couldn't help but think of companies like Dropbox and Google using watercolour like images here).

And it's hard to to marvel at the sheer effort that's gone into the book. It's over 200 pages long, and *every single page* is done in comic book format, and done beautifully at that. It's a useful reference for sheer craftsmanship alone.


So, while Understanding Comics may not appear to be directly useful to UX, and is certainly not rigorous in terms of theory, its commitment to its cause in both content and presentation means that it's the type of book that can remind you of things you'd forgotten you know, and inspire you to explore your methods of visual storytelling. Despite being nearly 20 years old, it still holds up. And I got just as much — and different — things out of it as a UX practictioner/PhD student as I did all thoe years ago as a high school student.

All images above copyright of Scott McCloud 'Understanding Comics' except for Maus by Art Speigelman, and used as fair use. 

Interaction Tyneside: The Future of Museums, Stories with Technology

Today was the inaugral Interaction Tyneside, an event that aims to be a forum for academics (and others?) to share their research around interactivity and design. Today saw both Toon universities represented, with Giovanni Innella of Northumbria University (and also a fellow student) talk about his work and questions on today's museums, and post-doc Newcastle University Culture lab researcher Marianna Obrist clued us in on her upcoming study on how older people create meaning with technology.

Storify below.

Thanks to Michael Leitner (design researcher and also a fellow Northumbria PhDer) for putting the event together.

Design Interest: Negative Space, Better UIs, and the Wider Picture

Newcastle now has a pretty strong tech scene, but its design one — while high quality — hasn't been quite so engaged. So I was really excited a few months ago when I heard about Design Interest. I missed the inaugral meetup, but was able to catch the second event tonight at Post Office NE1 and see a range of talks as well as work-in-progress. 

What I loved out of this event was that of the sold-out crowd of 30 people, there weren't that many that I knew (and a far more even gender split than at some of the tech events). It's great to see the Toon design community come out of the woodwork to discuss and celebrate design.

Tim Brown: Design Thinking

This morning, Northumbria design students were treated to a talk by IDEO director — and former alumni — Tim Brown talking about design thinking and his company's forays into social innovation through IDEO.org and Open IDEO. Will a designer's DQ ('design quotient') be to them what Klout is to those in social media? Who knows.

The audience of MA and BA design students were also given a quick rundown of some of the social innovation related design PhD research happening here:

  • Mersha Aftab (third year) on design competencies and innovation in regards to large companies
  • Priti Rao (writeup) on design for the poor in India
  • Laura Warwick (first year) on design problem framing and the social services in the North East of England.

Storify below.

Designers, Hackdays Want (and Need) You.

Hackdays. To the average punter, they sound downright dodgy (“don't they do illegal stuff?”) and even to those more in the know — like designers — they sound like the kind of thing that require you to be confident with the command line.

I certainly thought so. In fact, my first hackday experience was a terrible one. It was in Auckland (no, I won't say which one it was), and I turned up, only to find that no one really needed me. I left at lunch time.

However, when I recently asked a hackday veteran (and frequent winner) whether I should even bother going, the answer was “yes, designers are rare and sought after creatures at a hackday”. Was this true? I decided to take a punt, and applied for a place at the Rewired State Parliament Hackday. I was accepted, and took part in it at the (utterly gorgeous) Guardian Offices at King's Cross over the weekend.

The short answer to whether designer are welcome: yes. Even if you head along alone (though it may help to pair up with another designer in that case as well, more on that later). I was part of a team of six that included three devs and myself and one other designer. And we were flattered to get one of the best in show prizes!

Here's what I observed:

Devs or not, hackdays are a self-selecting — i.e. awesome — crowd.

Give up a weekend (and a lot of sleep therein), for no money, to play with code and ideas? Yep, you're not going to get just any old person at a hack day. (Actually, Rewired State Hackdays are ones that you have to apply to, but even still, it appeals to a certain type of person). There were an amazing group of people at the RSA Parly Hack, ranging from teams of experienced devs who came down for the day to the frighteningly good and energetic teens who won the Young Rewired State Hack earlier this year. The non-devs also ranged from interaction designers to social entrepreneurs. What they all shared was a desire to make some cool stuff within the short time frame, and to stick around for most of the time in order to do it.

Young Hackers Alert!

Young Hackers Alert! Also: this was at 1am. They were buzzing. I was not. I feel old.

It's cool to come with ideas, or to not come with any at all.

You're given the data beforehand to investigate, but the organisers also brief you at the start of the event what the team are looking for, and people say at the start what they're looking to play with. You can either see if there are others you want to work with, or get together and brainstorm.


How You Can Help

  1. Idea generation.
    I really enjoyed walking around at the start and dipping into the brainstorming sessions going on, especially as I'd been on the tour of parliament earlier in the day and had picked up a few things that could be of use. Another aspect of this is pushing ideas to the extreme.
  2. Going beyond the obvious.
    A hint that a regular winner of hackdays has given is that you have to go beyond the obvious. You could argue that with 'worthy' informaton like parliament data that it's all to easy be earnest and think about things like transparency, rather than more outrageous and interesting angles. Certainly the more memorable hacks from the event were subversive ones, be they playing the Price is Right with MP's expense claims, or finding the MPs that you're most likely to be able to get to rebel against their party line on a given topic.
  3. User Experience and Visuals.
    I was really happy that some of the developers grabbed me for input on UIs (e.g. search engines for people that aren't very tech savvy), and conversely saw a few other that I wish I'd been able to give a bit of advice to.

Tips for being involved as a designer:

  • Sit with the team, stay engaged. This sounds blindingly obvious, but if you're going to give a different perspective, you need to stay in touch with what's going on technically, in case things start to change (and believe me, they will. Most of the teams changed major technical deliverables over the course of the weekend).
    Speaking of being engaged, we also found that if you're working with devs, Git is the easiest way to share, with designers, a shared Dropbox folder. 
  • Help tell the story. While my team didn't have a completely working demo, we had a coherent story: we were able to give a good rationale, have a few working bits, and be able to show how it would work along with supporting information about how we might make it work. Myself and the other designer (Tim Brooke) really made it a priority to understand and champion the customer story, and I'm personally really proud that we maintained it throughout the technical changes.
  • Stay around, if you can. Hackdays that go across a weekend are kinda like being at design school again: the late nights, the crazy ideas and conversations at 1am, the cross polination of ideas … it's all part of the fund. (Though I wouldn't advise it quite so much if you haven't had a good sleep the night before — I came down from Newcastle on a 6am train and started to struggle as the night went on).
  • Have fun, take risks. If you can't do it during a hack day, when can you do it?

For those that are interested, here's more on the project I was involved in, “Politics I Care About”. And I can't resist a picture of my prize:

Commons Champers

[EDIT: Oops, I didn't say who my team were! I'm missing a few, but I think they were me, Tim Brooke, Matt Parker, David Durant, Jack and Julian (missed last names) ]