Understanding Comics

I’ve just finished reading Understanding Comics for the second time, and I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my “always late to the party” duty unless I recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in interface design.

McCloud’s definition of comics as purposefully juxtaposed images (and words) arranged in a deliberate sequence resonated with me. It’s shockingly similar to the way users experience graphical user interfaces. Whether we mean to or not, our decisions about what goes where and what is shown or omitted in an interface send messages to our users about our intent. Users have no choice but to assume that our choices were deliberate, otherwise user interfaces would just be chaos. I mean who would just throw some crap into a UI without thinking about it, right?

The blessing and the curse of having a real-live human being at the other end of our UI’s is the human mind’s ability to create “closure”, which McCloud defines as the building-up of meaning between the things we sense (in this case see). We facilitate closure when we animate transitions between UI states, and when we show two related things side-by-side. When done well, it prevents us from having to go to great lengths to treat software production like film where every change must be captured in tiny time increments in order for the whole to make sense. So what’s the downside? Users will make these intuitive leaps, and perceive meaning in what we’ve chosen to show them, whether we want them to or not. They will even create their own meaning where none was intended. The bastards! I think McCloud would argue that the onus is on designers to be deliberate. There’s also an unspoken warning to avoid adding things until you are certain that your user needs them: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

McCloud goes on to describe a bunch of interesting techniques for managing closure, managing the perception/relationship between time and space, the use and power of icons and words, and cultivating the art/process of comics (:s/comics/design). It’s a quick thought-provoking read that continues to seep into my thought process as I work on the designs for several new Kiln features. Oh, and did I mention that the entire thing is a graphic novel? Yeah, it’s that badass.