See What I Mean Blog

How to Use Comics to Communicate Ideas

Posts written by Kevin Cheng

  • Speaking at October’s BayCHI

    Posted on

    If you live or happen to be in the Bay Area, you may be interested attending this month’s BayCHI event where I will be speaking about the same topic the book covers. If you’d like a preview of the contents of the book, this presentation will hopefully give you some insight into that. If you plan on coming, feel free to come and ask me any questions afterwards.

    I should also mention that this event is free! Hope to see you this Tuesday.

    Point and Shoot

    Posted on

    Not all comics need to be elaborate 30+ pages. In fact, comics aren’t even necessarily in well defined panels and may not contain any words. To use Will Eisner’s nomenclature, comics are Sequential Art.

    Ponoko’s Photomake illustrates this brilliantly with the simplest comic possible:
    Photomake - Ponoko

    Photomake lets you draw anything by hand, take a photo of it and turn those drawings into real life objects. They have a video next to the comic that explains the process in more detail but this little comic is so short and to the point that its simplicity also implies the product’s own simplicity. It’s as though they’re saying, “No, really, it’s that easy. Take a photo, and the next you know, your sketch is now real!”

    See What I Mean Dot Org

    Posted on

    If you’d like to tell your friends about this book, and eventually related workshops, there’s now a convenient url for you to link to: currently links to this book site but will eventually host a schedule of upcoming workshops, templates, and other resources.

    This blog will still be the place where discussions related to the book and previews of the content will be published so make sure you subscribe to the feed.

    If you’re a user of Twitter, you might also follow me. I’m simply k on twitter. However, I should point out that I don’t only Twitter about updates on the book!

    Comics In Use Everywhere!

    Posted on

    No doubt many of you have heard about the new browser from Google called Chrome. Some of you may have also heard about how Chrome’s features were explained: with a comic drawn by Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics.

    Google’s use of comics is a tremendous validation for applying the medium to business contexts and in the spirit of, “it never rains but it pours,” a number of other business related comics have been cropping up lately on my radar. It seems the popularity of comics used not only for idea conception but also for marketing is increasing.

    Akoha is an attempt at creating more in person interactions through a card game. The concept can be fairly confusing to communicate, so they chose to do so with a comic that tells the story between a few people.

    Akoha - Come Play it Forward

    Similarly, Dial “DIR-ECT-TIONS” uses a comic to quickly inform how their service works. The service is, in fact, quite simple. As its namesake implies, it tells you directions when you call the number. While Akoha needed to explain something quite complex to their visitors, this service had a 3 step process that could easily be explained in a few bullet points. Nevertheless, the comic form is much more entertaining and likely to get the idea across without any confusion.

    Dial _DIR-ECT-IONS_ (347-328-4667).png

    Perhaps the most surprising example of comic usage I’ve seen recently is the U.S. Navy in Japan’s usage of a full blown manga comic book, translated into both English and Japanese, created to promote and explain the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to Japanese audiences.

    Finally, I ate my own dog food recently by using a comic on the homepage of a product that I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year. Raptr, a social platform for people who like to play and discover games, is the company that I work for. Our previous homepage created a lot of confusion as to what our product did or how it differed from existing services. We saw a lot of misinformed comments that came from first impressions. In comparison, the comic marketed one of our product’s core values in a much more concise and accurate fashion and the result has been a much more engaged audience who seem to more accurately understand the product.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at some of these comics in use in the industry in more detail and talk about what I feel worked and didn’t work with their implementation. I’ll also discuss the process that we went through for the Raptr comic.

    If you or your organization are using or trying to use comics, feel free to let me know and perhaps I can review them here on the blog. If it’s possible and with permission, it may even become a part of the book!

    Footnote: One thing to recognize is that all of these comics were created for marketing purposes and naturally required a bit more fidelity. As the book will explain in more detail, artistic ability is purely optional when it comes to using comics to get ideas across. You wouldn’t necessarily want a stick figure on your homepage, but it will do the job in more situations than expected.

    Why This Book?

    Posted on

    Looking at the history of how this book’s idea and motivation came about, it’s interesting to see how many of the milestones occurred at design conferences.

    It all started at the 2005 CHI conference in Portland. Bill Buxton, author of “Sketching the User Experience” was in the midst of writing his book and contacted my OK/Cancel partner in crime Tom Chi and I about meeting up to chat with him at the conference. We met up and discussed various ideas surrounding his book as well as our particular medium of comics and how successful that was.

    Then Bill offhandedly wondered how showing comics would compare to showing wireframes to stakeholders. He’d effectively planted a seed in my brain.

    Months later, I joined Yahoo! Maps and Yahoo! Local. The design team and, in particular, our manager Tom Wailes were receptive to trying new methods and the idea of using comics to illustrate our next major set of features to stakeholders. With the help of Jane Jao and Shane Kibble, we created three sets of short comics that detailed the major use cases. They were instantly a hit all the way up to the VP of our organization. Mark Wehner, our team’s user researcher, then brilliantly suggested what should have been obvious—that we show the comics to potential users. That was also a great success.

    Fast forward a few months to IA Summit 2006. Lou Rosenfeld and I were already acquainted through some other work OK/Cancel had done for Lou and he was just getting Rosenfeld Media started and seeking authors. He suggested that perhaps the comics method would make a good addition but I was hesitant and uncertain of how much demand there would be for such a title. “I’m not sure it’s enough for a book,” I recall saying.

    Jane and I presented our work with comics at the Summit to our largest audience yet which resulted in a great deal of positive feedback. But what I remember most was Lou coming up immediately after the talk and saying simply, “definitely a book.”

    And yet, I remained hesitant. Demand for the method’s workshop was modest the following two years and the number didn’t seem to be increasing. Many people were still encumbered with the notion that they needed to be able to draw to use the method and there was always the hurdle of overcoming the stigma of the word “comics”.

    Then, the momentum picked up. Martin Hardee, the director of user experience at, used the method and released comic templates to the public. Jess McMullin from nForm used comics as part of their swim lanes method. Boxes and Arrows had not one, but two articles on the use of comics. At the same time, many comic creation applications and websites were starting to appear.

    As if to bring the tale full circle, the story ends with CHI and IA Summit. Further signifying the popularity of the method, the two most recent CHI conferences have included presentations on the use of comics to inform design. Then at the most recent IA Summit, Lou and I held an impromptu session soliciting ideas from interested readers and practitioners.

    A large part of my uncertainty had been around the marketing of the book and the title. During this session, we received tremendous feedback from the participants about all aspects of the potential book but perhaps the most significant for me was Stephen Anderson’s suggestion for the book title, “See What I Mean”. It perfectly encapsulated what this book will be about.

    I hope that session will only be the beginning of such quality feedback and advice from everyone. One of the great things about Rosenfeld Media is that the development of the book is such a collaborative process between the author and its audience. Throughout the next few months, I will be posting snippets, resources and most importantly, questions. I’m looking forward to it!