Menu Close

Comics as a Design Ecosystem: A Case for Comics in Design Education

By Erik A. Evensen

Comics have long held a connection with the world of graphic design. In regards to media, comics utilize a combination of text and image that blend together, which is always a primary motivator of graphic design (or visual communication design, as I will describe it later on). Comics also serve as a vehicle for a narrative. The narrative is an important aspect of all design fields. Visual communication designers’ relation to this idea is perhaps its most important defining characteristic, and other design areas use the visual narrative to engage clients, educate users, conduct research, and make large-scale ideas understood in an economical way. Comics and design are even connected in history. As described and fictionalized in Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, many early comic artists were plucked from the pages of newspaper advertising departments to be tasked with filling a public demand for comic books. The brushed-ink style normally associated with comic art is, in fact, derived from the same techniques employed by advertising illustrators, and was developed to maximize photographic reproduction on newsprint.

Figure 1: An illustrated newspaper advertisement for Warner’s “Safe Cure,” originally appearing in The Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1902 (Warner’s Safe Cure Blog).

It stands to reason that this relationship would be even deeper than one of historical context and superficial mark-making. This paper will explore the connection between several basic, fundamental principles of industrial, interior, and visual communication design, and connect them to the language of comics. It will also connect the specific philosophical stances of The Ohio State University’s design programs with the inherent format of sequential art. By demonstrating a relevant course project from a Design Drawing class at Ohio State, it will present a case for making more connections in this area, teaching design by borrowing from comics.

The Fundamental Differences Between Art and Design

“One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” —Charles Eames

The above quote came from famed designer Charles Eames during a 1969 Q&A session run by Madame L’Amic. The session was filmed held in conjunction with the exhibition “Qu’est ce que le design?” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre in Paris. This case study reflects the Department of Design at The Ohio State University, which, due to its initial focus on the subfield of Industrial Design, has historically embraced a user-centered design philosophy. The Usability Professionals Association (UPA) defines user-centered design as “an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product. User-centered design processes focus on users through the planning, design and development of a product.” The UPA also outlines the international standards for user-centered design methodologies, which suggest designers begin by specifying the context of use of the product or system being designed, specify any inherent requirements of said product or system, create a design solution, and then evaluate the effectiveness of said solution.

Figure 2: The UPA’s process of user-centered design, outlined (Usability Professionals Association).

This philosophy, and others like it, are those that most fundamentally contextualize the field of Design from the larger, overarching area of “the arts.” This differentiation still demands a degree of subjectivity, but is one upon which designers and design scholars typically agree. Ohio State’s Department of Design defines its role in its own website as, “We define design as a purposeful, systematic, and creative activity” (The Ohio State University Department of Design). To further elaborate, in a 1998 article in Critique Magazine, Michael Brady says:

Design is utilitarian in a way that art is not. Design is the how of a thing: how to order the parts, how to serve the client’s interests, how to convey the information. Art, on the other hand, is its own end. It isn’t utilitarian. It subordinates ordinary usefulness to its own purposes. It doesn’t concern itself with description the way illustration does, nor with the desires of the buyer as does fashion, nor the tastes of the public as does style. (Brady par. 4)

To paraphrase, the various fields of design (notably graphic design, interior space design and industrial design) are distinguished from the overarching field of “the fine arts” because they rely intensely on content and context. A painting, and an artist’s painting practice, can exist without any easily recognizable content. For instance, abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko made paintings about painting. Design cannot function this way, as it is a purpose-driven creative exercise. Content is what drives all fields of design. Context, however, is what guides it. Without appropriate context, the content inherent to all designed things exists without any plan, purpose, or reason.

Design Drawing and its Importance

“Drawing is just as legitimate and useful a tool for thinking and problem-solving as language or mathematics: it just happens to be neglected in conventional education.” —William Kirby Lockard

Drawing is a crucial component in design education. Many design programs, especially those housed in larger departments of Fine Art, teach a fine art approach to drawing, which can often stress self-expression, setting a mood, or creating art derived by some form of inspiration. However, design programs that are able to distinguish themselves typically incorporate some form of Design Drawing.

One of the basic cognitive benefits of sketching is that the mere acts [sic] of formulating a mental image in a concrete way on paper makes it possible for the designer to reflect over the concept at once and almost instantly develop it further into a new concept, a so called [sic] iteration. When working in teams, sketching is a valuable tool for creative group activities such as brainstorming and concept evaluation. (Olofsson & Sjölén 5)

Design Drawing is set apart from other forms of drawing in a manner similar to how design is set apart from other modes of creative action. Its focus is inherently utilitarian in a way that other methods of drawing are not. Its primary focus is presenting and delivering information, with stylistic choices being applied to support that goal. In teaching design drawing, emphasis is placed on clarity, communication of form, communication of believable space, as well as on an economy, or efficiency, of information. Due to the many professional restrictions placed on designers, concision is often crucial to the design process, even in the areas that incorporate drawing. Additionally, all designers, and industrial designers in particular, benefit from the development of “persuasive sketches,” often called renderings, which have the purpose of communicating everything outlined above, but with a more detailed and stylized appearance. This form of sketching is meant to “sell” the proposed design to project managers, clients, users, or others who may prove influential to the project. (Olofsson & Sjölén 5) Due to their relatively “flashy” or stylized appearance, focus on smooth lines and dramatic line weights, dramatic angles, and communicative purposes, persuasive sketches often appear more like concept art for films or even comic illustrations.

Why Comics?

“Good art sends a different message to everyone. Good design sends the same message to everyone.” —John O’Nolan, web designer

The overall field of comics is a natural fit with the overall field of design, as it requires a similar mode of thinking of its content creators. This is because much like design, the comics medium is meant to accomplish a specific goal, providing the same narrative experience to all readers. Readers are meant to internalize comic narratives in the same way, so as to develop the same narrative experience regardless of personal background. Scott McCloud emphasizes the potential for comics to connect one person’s mind to another, using graphic components to see what another person sees and experience an abstraction of what another person experiences. (McCloud 194, 198)

Design requires practitioners to develop or anticipate an empathy with their targeted users, to understand not just what needs to be designed, but how and why. Comics have a history of developing empathy and creating an emotional bond between reader and protagonist. Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth are both widely regarded for their powerful, empathetic protagonists. Other known works in the comics medium that tend to yield an intense, empathetic connection include Judd Winnick’s Pedro and Me, Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series.

Because Design requires all of its targeted users to have homogeneous experiences, this is usually done through clarity and focus on communication. Visual communication requires a focus on the most important information and typically involves a re-structuring of information into hierarchies. Design drawing, as it relates to Industrial and Interior design, often requires a focus on form, materials, texture, and other information that may prove important to users, clients, project managers, funding sources, and engineers or manufacturers. As stated earlier, comics require readers to experience the same narrative in the same way, and objects are illustrated with a similar focus. Milton Caniff, Walter Simonson, and Sean Gordon Murphy are all examples of comic artists who excel at presenting form and texture, light and shadow. This clarity is how readers understand that a room is a dungeon, or a scientist’s laboratory, or that Thor’s hammer is made out of metal with a leather-wrapped handle.

The narrative of a comic or graphic novel requires a thorough, visual demonstration of how things are interacted with. In a prose novel, an author may choose to describe a particular action or advice in relatively vague terminology. In the comics format, the illustrator is required to consider how someone might interact with the product, system, or space in an appropriate manner, which then requires the illustrator to consider interfaces, layout, and user experiences much as a designer does. (Denison 70) In his 2013 MFA thesis, When Designers Ask, “What If?”, E. Scott Denison poses the following set of questions:

How might something be held, or touched? Is it soft and sculpted? Is it small and round? What movements of the body or limbs might it require? How do the resulting behaviors play in a social or personal context? (Denison 70)

Clarity of storytelling is not limited to interactions, materials, or locations, however, and requires a developed sense of rhythm, movement, and sensitivity to nuance. It requires artists to tell their stories in a holistic way, holding on to the organization of their story as they develop each individual illustration. In addition to his high levels of artistic craftsmanship, Sean Gordon Murphy’s body of work also contains a highly developed sensitivity to this kind of holistic, nonverbal communication. In particular, Punk Rock Jesus, Murphy’s 2012 passion project miniseries from Dark Horse Comics, has been critically praised for its artwork, storytelling, and high concepts. I routinely use samples from Murphy’s portfolio website as examples to teach design majors about nonverbal storytelling. Although his drawing style is incredibly different, David Aja’s work on the 2012 Hawkeye series, written by Matt Fraction, has seen a similar high quality of visual narrative. Aja’s work stands out the most in Hawkeye #11 (2013), an issue told entirely from the point of view of Hawkeye’s pet dog, Lucky. Because Lucky is a normal dog and does not speak any human languages, all dialogue is reduced to hatch marks, with the occasional word a dog might understand included for comedic effect. Additionally, Lucky is able to communicate through other senses, most notably smell. Fraction, Aja, and letterer Chris Eliopoulos collaborate to present an iconified identification system outlining the networks of smells and sounds Lucky processes, giving us a greater insight into the mind of a dog, and refining a new method of nonverbal storytelling for the field of comics.

Aside from the reasons listed above, there are a few other, deeper connections that can be made using the language of comics. The first of these is pattern recognition and “chunking.” Comics theorist Scott McCloud states that human beings have such a natural predilection for pattern recognition that we see human faces in any set of markings containing two dots and a line. The abstraction of this type of icon should not be thought of as having eliminated particular information, but rather, having focused in on important information. (McCloud 31-33) Game design theorist Raph Koster refers to this concept as “chunking,” and simplifies this idea by stating, “the brain is good at cutting out the irrelevant.” Human beings rely on this function of “chunking” all the time, with just about every task we do. (Koster 18-22) Understanding this economy of information is crucial to any creative activity that seeks to present complex information and have it understood clearly and quickly.

The second of these is comics’ natural inclination toward an economy of representation. McCloud also speculates on “non-visual self-awareness,” which suggests that people respond to cartoons and other simplified face icons because the simplicity of these images seems in line with what the viewer feels as “their” face. This allows the specifics of the icon to take a backseat, and allows viewers to project themselves onto it. He theorizes that if what the icon looks like matters less, what it says will matter more. (McCloud 24-37) This concept is beautifully illustrated in Pixar’s 2013 animated short, The Blue Umbrella, directed by Saschka Unseld, which emphasizes the facial characteristics of manmade objects. By focusing on a more iconified system of visuals, readers are more free to empathize with the characters in the narrative. This is important for designers to understand, as they are often required to be fast, efficient, and economical with their creative choices while remaining clear and visually appealing.

Ohio State Design: The Case Study

The Ohio State University’s Department of Design has three undergraduate majors: Industrial Design (typically connected to the design of products, furniture, and tools), Interior Space Design (the creation of spaces that serve specific purposes), and Visual Communication Design (graphic, or visual design in all of its forms, most typically understood as graphic design for print and web, but quickly evolving). OSU presented a three-course Design Drawing sequence for many years. I was an instructor of this sequence to first-year design students from 2007–2009, and later from 2012–2013, when I became the Design Foundations Coordinator, overseeing all courses in the first-year design foundations area, including the design drawing sequence. The first course, Descriptive & Analytical Drawing, was an observational drawing class that emphasized line drawing, clarity, and communication. The second course, Drawing Systems, was built on the drawing techniques surrounding architectural and engineering graphics, and the related applications of those techniques. The third course, Graphic Thinking, was the course that became my pet project. Intended to be a course that prepared students to draw conceptually, with no observational information or specific guidelines presented to them, it incorporated perspective drawing, scale, the drawing of inside and outside spaces, textural analysis, and narrative.

When I was initially assigned to teach Graphic Thinking, its focus had grown diluted, and a faculty-led redesign of the course content was assigned by departmental administration. Reasons cited were that the course had been handed down between graduate instructors and adjunct faculty for some time, allowing for its original objectives to be lost. It focused heavily on perspective drawing, but perspective assignments were built around drawing boxes and shapes, and not actual objects or spaces. Additionally, the final project was a storyboard project that typically yielded children’s-book-style illustrations of fairy tales. Several instructors collaborated to identify the original learning objectives and revise content and assignments to better reflect them. As a lifelong devotee to the comics format, I looked to the art form of comics to assist my own contributions to course revision, to help support the pedagogical gaps, and to meet students’ needs. Following our revision of the course, a new scope for presentation and new long-term objectives were defined. Under the revised course, the class projects grew in scope and complexity, beginning with simple one-point perspective drawing and expanding in complexity. As assignments progressed, concepts and techniques built upon themselves, adding in more perspective points, complex forms in perspective, ellipses and round forms in perspective, texture studies, and explorations of space and scale. The assignments finally culminated in a sequential art narrative meant to showcase all of the skills learned throughout the quarter. The creation of a lengthy final project based on the language of comics was the pinnacle, and the most broadly-reaching project in the new version of the class.

Figure 3: Example of student work: One-point perspective exercise by Emma Sanders.
Figure 4: Example of student work: Two-point perspective exercise by Allen Wagner.
Figure 5: Example of student work: Elliptical perspective exercise by Sarah French.
Figure 6: Example of student work: Midterm assignment by Adam Feld.

The final project for Graphic Thinking required students to pair up and interview each other. The topic has changed over the years, but its most current form is to have each student identify a personal problem or “pet peeve” in their partner’s daily life. This step is crucial to the design process, which puts the designer in a problem-identifying and problem-solving role. Understanding the problems of others is a fundamental component of the user-centered design philosophy that Ohio State adheres to. It is suggested that the problem in question have something to do with using things, living or working in a space, understanding things, or getting from one place to another. These are all standard human tasks, but they are all design-specific. Each is relevant to the different design majors offered at Ohio State: Industrial, Interior, and Visual Communication.

The next step in the assignment is to have each student develop a user profile, or persona, for the primary character (or characters) in the story. Due to the difficult nature of capturing likeness, it was made clear that presenting an accurate likeness of classmates is not required. Students are free to interpret the design of their characters, as long as the character design does not distract from the primary goal of storytelling.

Figure 7: Example of student work: user profile by Brittany Toth.
Figure 8: Example of student work: user profile by Adam Hensley.

The next step in the assignment is for the students to loosely storyboard their narrative on sketch paper, using quick, gestural sketches, stick figures, or some other disposable ideation methodology. At this point, students have been familiarized with the importance of sketching, ideation, and rapid concept generation in the design process. Due to the complex nature of sequential art narratives, this step allows them to exercise this skill in a very practical way that fully explores its natures of problem-solving and idea generation, allowing them to experiment with page layout, clear storytelling, style, and narrative impact. It also forces them to empathetically connect with their subject in a way they may not have experienced before. The students’ process of interviewing a partner and dissecting his or her story, then presenting it in a sequential art narrative, is what instills an empathy for this other person in the design students’ minds. The analysis of another person’s issues and the act of continually putting one’s self in that person’s shoes, so to speak, allows for a deeper understanding of the problem at hand. When students craft their final projects, they are able to communicate that empathy more clearly, so others can understand it. Because of this, those student designers are able to design more meaningful experiences for others because they connect with them on a much deeper and more substantial level.

The final, most important component of the project is a two-page sequential art narrative. It is suggested that students will require more than 6 panels to tell their story, but it is recommended they try to stay under 15 panels. In order to maximize the visual component of sequential art, students are not allowed to use text in their narratives unless they have presented a case for its benefit to the instructor. Being forced to present a visual story without leaning on narration, dialogue, or caption boxes is challenging for them, but forces them to consider the more complete range of artistic tools they have been absorbing into their creative vocabulary for the duration of the course.

Figure 9: Example of student work: final narrative by Esther See.
Figure 10: Example of student work: final narrative by Sasha Milton.
Figure 11: Example of student work: final narrative by Patrick Janesz.
Figure 12: Example of student work: final narrative by Brittany Toth.


This project was originally introduced in Spring quarter of 2008 in Design Thinking. Ohio State has since transitioned to a semester system, and the curricula and coursework of the Department of Design have been adapted to fit this new model. The most current version of this assignment takes place during the spring semester, in a new course called Visual Principles 3. These sequential art narrative storyboards fit several inherent properties of the design field as a whole. From a top-level perspective, they are focused on problem solving, the utility of which separates designers from other creative practitioners. They require students to undertake a task analysis, which is an important component in industrial design, interior design, and interactive and web design. Similarly, they utilize the development of personas, which help students empathetically put themselves in the position of their clients or users, a common practice in many corners of the design world, but most commonly seen in User Experience and Industrial Design. From a mid-level perspective, they require the crafting of a visual narrative, which also requires an economy of storytelling. The act of reducing an idea to its basic concepts is central to visual communication, and to the presentation of complex information. And, from a specific, design drawing perspective, the project requires students to think spatially, draw in perspective, communicate clearly and effectively, and make creative decisions that are sensible and economical. In summary, this project combines a large number of important design concepts, not in spite of its connection to comics, but because of it. Because of this, design programs in general, and design drawing classes in particular, could bring comics and design closer together by further embracing their fundamental similarities.

Works Cited

Blue Umbrella, The. Dir. Saschka Unseld. Pixar, 2013. Film. Brady, Michael. “Art and Design: What’s the Big Difference?” Critique Magazine (26 May 1998). Web. 26 June 2013.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York, NY: Random House, 2000. Print.

Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. 29 Nov 2013.

Films of Charles & Ray Eames, The. Dir. Charles Eames. Perf. Charles Eames and Madame L’Amic. Image Entertainment, 2005. DVD.

Fraction, Matt (w), David Aja (a), Matt Hollingsworth (c), and Chris Eliopoulos (l). “Pizza is my Business.” Hawkeye #11 (Jun-Jul 2013), Marvel Comics.

“Home.” The Ohio State University Department of Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 July 2013. <>.

Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, Inc., 2005. Print.

Murphy, Sean Gordon. Punk Rock Jesus (Sep. 2012–Jan. 2013), Vertigo Comics [DC Comics]. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. Print.

Olofsson, Erik and Klara Sjölén. Design Sketching. Klippan: KEEOS Design Books, 2005. Print.

“Resources: About Usability.” UXPA: Usability Resources: What Is User Centered Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2013. <>.

“Safe Cure.” Illustrated newspaper advertisement for Warner’s “Safe Cure.” originally appearing in The Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1902.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

Tomine, Adrian. Summer Blonde. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2002. Print.

Ware, Chris. Building Stories. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. Print.

“Warner’s Safe Cure Blog.” Warners Safe Cure Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2013. <>.

Winnick, Judd. Pedro and Me. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. Print.

Related Articles