See What I Mean Cover

See What I Mean

How to Use Comics to Communicate Ideas

By Kevin Cheng

Published: December 2012
Paperback: 216 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-27-9
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-85-9

If you’re an executive, designer, product manager, marketer, or engineer, communication is part of your work. Using images and text in unique ways, comics can engage readers in ways traditional methods can’t. In See What I Mean, you’ll learn how to create comics about your products and processes without an illustrator—just like Google, eBay, and Adobe do.

Paperback + Ebooks i All of our Paperbacks come with a FREE ebook in 4 common formats.


Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about See What I Mean


A breakthrough book by Kevin Cheng that will soon have you making breakthroughs of your own. If you care about clear thinking and communication, this book belongs in your library.

Dave Gray, author of Gamestorming and The Connected Company

Think you can’t draw? Wish you could? Want to make your personas and scenarios and user stories much more vivid with pictures? Now you can! Get this book! Kevin Cheng shows and tells us why comics are a wonderful way to convey the stories of our designs. And he makes it easy for even the drawing-challenged (like me) to do it.

Janice (Ginny) Redish, 
author, Letting Go of the Words-Writing Web Content that Works (2nd ed., 2012)

Even if you are a product manager, in marketing, or engineering manager, who has no aspirations to learn to cartoon, this book may be even more important to you, since your job may well be all the more about effective communication. This will help build priceless literacy in what could be an effective arrow in your quiver of techniques.

Bill Buxton, author of Sketching the User Experience

We’ve used sketching and storyboards at Twitter to help us understand the problems we are trying to solve, collaboratively iterate on product concepts, and communicate the core of an idea clearly and concisely. Kevin’s book is a great resource for designers looking to incorporate storytelling into their workflow.

Joshua Brewer, Principal Designer at Twitter

Table of Contents

See What I Mean is a slightly unique book in structure. Because it is about using comics to communicate ideas, there are two ways to read the book. The first is as you would a regular book–reading the prose of the chapters with accompanying examples and figures. However, each chapter will also have a few pages summarizing the contents in comic form. So you can get an idea of the main points and dive deeper wherever you want!

Part 1: Why Comics

  • Chapter 1: Comics Save Time
  • Chapter 2: Properties of Comics

Part 2: Making a Comic

  • Chapter 3: Basic Drawing
  • Chapter 4: What’s Your Comic About?
  • Chapter 5: Writing the Story
  • Chapter 6: Laying Out the Comic
  • Chapter 7: Drawing Comics

Part 3: Using Comics

  • Chapter 8: Applying Comics
  • Chapter 9: Breaking Down the Barriers
  • Chapter 10: Onward


These common questions about comics and their short answers are taken from Kevin Cheng’s book See What I Mean: Using Comics to Communicate Ideas. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What tools do I need?
    To create a comic, you need a piece of paper and a pencil—nothing more. However, you do need to define a few things up front such as whom you’re making the comic for and what you’re trying to get your readers to do. Are you trying to get everyone on the same page? Get customers to sign up for your site? Communicate an internal process to your team? Educate someone on a topic? In addition to answering these questions, it will be helpful to know something about your characters through research and personas.
    Chapter 4 discusses these questions, while Chapter 7 covers a lot of the tools you can use.
  2. What if I can’t draw?
    If you can draw a stick figure and a smiley face, you’re already set. In Chapter 3, I explain just how little you need to get started, and I also give a few tips to help you feel more comfortable.
  3. When should I use comics?
    I don’t advocate that comics should be used for everything, but there are scenarios where comics are appropriate at every point in a product cycle. Whether it’s before you’ve started building a product and are still defining the requirements, in the midst of iterating on a product, or ready to launch a product, comics can have a place. Once you understand the strengths of comics and read about how others are using them, you’ll be the best judge of when they’re appropriate for your situation.
    You might want to check out Chapter 8 where I discuss some applications of comics.
  4. How do I convince my client or team to use comics?
    If you’re reading this book, then I imagine I’m halfway to convincing you that comics are useful, but you may be wondering whether you’ll be able to convince others to let you spend time drawing comics. This is probably the most common question I get when I talk about comics at conferences and workshops. That’s why I’ve dedicated all of Chapter 9 to helping you. You’ll be armed with data, examples of other companies using comics, and a few tips on how to communicate your goals.


And you who wish to represent by words the form of man…relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe, the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw…

—Leonardo da Vinci, 1487

I think about this a lot. This is Leonardo, one of history’s greatest thinkers, telling us that just talking is a bad way to describe an idea and often obscures its real essence. Leonardo is worth listening to. Here is the guy who invented the parachute, designed the helicopter, architected fortresses, engineered never-before-seen machines of every kind, and knew more about human anatomy than most doctors do today. And he also painted the Mona Lisa.

What would Leonardo think of the way we’re taught to think today? He’d hate it. Modern education tells us we’ve got to become linear A-B-C specialists: if we want to engineer, we study calculus and computational fluid dynamics; if we want to design, we study human factors and heuristics; if we want to paint, we study painting. But Leonardo studies all these things—and he came up with new solutions to old problems every day. What did Leonardo know that we don’t?

That is what Kevin’s book is really about. If we want to fully describe an idea, we must both write it and draw it. Kevin calls this “comics,” but I suspect that Kevin knows his term is a smokescreen. What Kevin is actually telling us—and showing us—is something far deeper and more powerful. It’s this: drawing is the secret to thinking.

Language teachers, standardized test-creators, education experts, journalists, and most recruiters disagree. “Words,” they say, “are the sign of intelligence. Just look at our greatest thinkers. Did they draw? No, they wrote! So learn your grammar, learn your five-paragraph essays, and shut up about your silly comics.”

Anyone who tells you this is either lying, ignorant, or insane. Let’s take a closer look at our greatest thinkers and see how they really thought. It comes as no surprise that many thought with pictures: Newton, Euclid, Descartes, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Einstein, Galileo, and Steve Jobs. They all drew. But we knew that.

But what about the writers, the philosophers, the historians—you know, the real thinkers? They didn’t draw. Or did they?Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 9.04.02 PM

Guess what: it turns out that most great thinkers drew—even though we’re never taught that. Darwin first explored the idea of natural selection by drawing a tree. Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel by drawing his concept out as a mandala. J.R.R. Tolkien couldn’t write without first drawing maps and portraits of his characters. Even J.K. Rowling just said that the first thing she did when she started to write her latest novel was to draw a map of the town in which it took place.

As Kevin says in the following pages:

Through some invisible societal pressures, the kids learned that the label of “artist” carried with it some minimum level of talent. In reality, I’d suggest that you’re an artist whether you call yourself one or not. So long as you can draw a stick figure, you’re well on your way to being able to create simple stories that explain your ideas better than any well-crafted words could.

Kevin, you are so right! Thank you. Now show us what you mean.

—Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah
San Francisco, October 2012


The genesis of this book really started decades ago with the first Dragonball Z manga comic my parents bought for me. Since then, along with my younger brother Jamie, we never stopped buying, reading, and drawing comics and not once did my parents suggest we should perhaps be doing something more productive. Who knew that their support and encouragement for me to keep doing seemingly childish things would lead to this? Perhaps they’ve always known. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Many others helped pave the road that led to this book even being an idea. Tom Chi, my partner in the design webcomic OK/Cancel, for asking, “So when are we going to do this webcomic?”; Bill Buxton, for suggesting we should use comics to support designs; Tom Wailes, Jane Jao, Shane Kibble, Mark Wehner, and Garth Finucane, for going along with the crazy idea at Yahoo! and helping present it to the IA Summit; Stephen Anderson, who came up with the book title and hasn’t been able to use it for his talks since. And of course, Lou Rosenfeld, for coming up after that presentation and saying, “This is definitely a book.”

All of that was before the book even started. During the development of the book, Lou and everyone at Rosenfeld Media, especially my eternally patient editor, Marta Justak, were incredibly supportive and helpful. My present and former colleagues at Yahoo!, Raptr, Twitter, and Donna all patiently encouraged my behavior, letting me draw and convince them to do the same. Dan Willis’ and Whitney Quesenbury’s technical edits turned this book into something exponentially better than its initial draft. While I was spending hours and days at my local coffee shops, I remember thinking, “I’m going to make sure I mention Farley’s and Tart to Tart for letting me squat there for so long.”

While it seems like the majority of this book is by me, the work sits on the shoulders of giants such as Scott McCloud, Will Eisner, and Wally Wood. And the best content comes from those who generously contributed to the book: Dan Roam, author of Blah-Blah-Blah; Josh Brewer at 52 Weeks of UX; Daniel Pink, author of Drive; Anna Christina Douglas at Google; Chris Matts, Yvonne Shek at nForm; Craig Berman, Ann Wylie from Communicating-With-; Pam Neely from How to Draw It; Karl Dotter at Toast Labs; Brad Colbow, artist of The Brads; Frank Ramirez, Julie Meridian, and Evangeline Haughey at Adobe; Jenni Chassen, Lee and Sachi LeFever at Common Craft; Clive Goodinson from Pixton; Martin Hardee and Bryce Johnson’s respective templates; and Preston Smalley, Shailesh Shilwant, Ahmed Riaz, and Deb Aoki at eBay.

Finally, this book could not have happened without the help and support of my wife, Coley. She’s been my partner, moral support, inspiration, conscience, motivator, and editor. If parts of the book seem flawless, she’s probably had something to do with it. If some parts seem less than perfect, I probably neglected to show her those. Thank you for making sure this book happened and for sharing in the stresses of such an endeavor, CNPNCPDM.

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