Technical writing is often built around encouraging action on the part of the reader, like instructions for building a piece of furniture. While words alone can be effective, many have chosen to use illustrations as part of that, not only including pictures of objects, but of objects being acted upon by a visible person. In American popular culture this has been seen before and technical communicators can learn from the art of the comic book.
The most obvious is the figure itself. In comic books you develop personalities that are developed over time and then reinvented for a new audience when the original personality no longer connects with the intended readership. While technical communication rarely develops personalities, it can try to connect to the audience through art as well as words.
In some technical documents, like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the author is very clear about his reference material… he draws himself as a guide. But, in mainstream comics, the figure is often masked or hidden. The first is a way of connecting to the reader on a personal level, but it doesn’t create a persona for the reader in the way that mainstream comics often do. Arms and hands are often visible, and perhaps the most important element of all is the ¾ rule… the figure is not shown straight on or completely from the side, but a mix of both. This creates dimensionality and encourages engagement.
McCloud himself points to the simplicity of comic art as a good thing; it emphasizes what the artist is trying to communicate. This is already an active principle in technical communication, but the awareness of it. Michael Opsteegh’s article for “Techniscribe,” “What Technical Communicators can learn from Comics,” covers much of the elements that can be duplicated in technical communications, such as wavy lines to indicate a bad smell, or straight lines to show speed.
Opsteegh even takes us back in time to Will Eisner’s M16A manual, given in WWII to soldiers in order to efficiently communicate the care and use of the weapon, but Opsteegh misses an important part of the art of comic books, even in Eisner’s case. Instead of looking at an individual panel, or one piece of art, we can look at the page design. Comics have ranged from magazine size (in the Golden Age of comics) through to pamplets (like Chick Tracts, some Tijuana Bibles, and other experimental efforts). This has required some interesting artistic choices. Eisner, in “Comics and Sequential Art,” talks about the flow of information across panels, unifying the document. Any technical document that wants to motivate the reader needs to do more than just guide the reader with big arrows… it also needs to design the page so that the graphical elements in the instructions themselves naturally flow toward the next instruction.
You can bet that with the rise of graphic journalism, the need to communicate to non-literate audiences, and the ability to create information dense documents, you’ll be seeing more graphic communications in your technical soup.