WORKSHOP: See What I Mean: How to Communicate with Comics
Thursday, August 26th
Kevin missed the memo to stop drawing after the first grade. Nowadays, he splits his crayon time between Twitter, where he is the product manager for the web client, and finishing his book “See What I Mean: How to Communicate Ideas With Comics”. Kevin has a history of mixing his many passions for games, comics, design and technology. He was the Director of User Experience for the gaming social network Raptr and the designer for Yahoo! Pipes. He co-founded the user experience web comic OK/Cancel, and the online comic publishing network Off Panel Productions. Through Off Panel, he recently co-created an iPhone augmented reality game called “ARGH”.
He holds a Masters degree from University College London in Human Computer Interaction and Ergonomics and has presented about design, comics and augmented reality at numerous conferences including Interaction, IASummit, User Interface Conference, UXWeek, and South by Southwest. He likes the flavour of the blue crayons the best.
Interview With Adaptive Path’s Kendra Shimmell
An interview with Kevin Cheng about comics, villains, heroes, and design…
Setting: South Park in San Francisco; Kevin doodling as usual…
KS: When did comics become such a big part of your life?
KC: Really, it’s surreal. People often ask me how long I’ve been drawing, but the answer is that I’ve never stopped drawing. For most people it is not about when did they start, but rather, when did they choose to stop. I was drawing a lot of Japanese Manga comics like Dragon Ball when I was a kid. Then I moved to Vancouver and was like, “Finally I can buy those American comics!”
KS: Which artist was your favorite?
KC: I moved to Vancouver (from Hong Kong) during a really crappy era of comics in the early 90’s when brand name artists started to appear like Jim Lee — when they had just spawned image comics. During this time Jim Lee was still working on the new X-Men series.
KS: Again, who takes the title of Kevin’s favorite comic artist?
KC: Probably Jim Lee. Well, there are a lot of awesome artists. The problem with Jim Lee’s work is that it’s all kind of the same. He draws amazing anatomy because I think he was a med school dropout, but other artists like Bill Watterson are much more expressive (creator of Calvin and Hobbes).
KS: Is there anything else that draws you to comics (no pun intended)?
KC: I don’t know if there is anything really deep. I just feel like they are fun to read, so much more fun than reading a thick novel. On top of that, when you are also able to draw them, it’s awesome! I feel inspired by making comics.
What inspires you most?
KS: Speaking of inspiration, as a product manager, designer, and artist how are you able to maintain your creative flow? What inspires you most? I asked you to bring along three artifacts—let’s take a look!
Creative inspiration #1: Fiancé’ Coley (Aw.)
KC: One of them is really cheesy. My fiancé’ Coley is also a designer, but she approaches design different than I do, and it challenges my thinking. I approach things very analytically…
KS: What’s Coley’s approach to design like?
KC: She’s much more creative in a bunch of different areas, and hands-on. I joke that she wears the pants in the family because she can handle a power tool way better than I can—she can fix plumbing. Then on the other hand, she’ll craft an awesome necklace, and jump on the computer and do all the same digital things that I do. From a visual design perspective, I am duotone, and she is much more about throwing in a lot of different colors, which is much harder to resolve, but she’ll make it work. She’ll take on the challenge. She brings a different perspective and approach to the same work. I learn from her.
Creative inspiration #2: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Adaptive Path’s Jesse James Garrett has a surprise cameo in this story.
KC: Yeah, so Scott McCloud is kind of like the godfather of comics. If you haven’t read Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art you have to. Any designer should read this because it’s what we do. An interesting story—I was just in Jesse’s office (Jesse James Garrett) and he has a bunch of comics in there. I pointed at this book and asked him, “Why do you have that up?” and Jesse grabs the book and opens it up to a page that talks about how any other comic artist might have drawn this story vs. how Marvel does it. Jesse said something like, “When I read this, it was the first time I was cognizant of somebody else’s process for making choices in how best to present information.” Which was brilliant.
KS: Have you had a similar aha moment that you recall?
KC: Well this book definitely crystallized a lot about comics—about what makes them so engaging and interesting. It’s about communication, it’s not just about comics. We both know that design is fundamentally about communication.
Creative inspiration #3: Games! Kevin gets major geek cred when he shows up with his beta for Ultima Online 8.
KS: What’s your third inspiration artifact?
KC: This is more representative than anything else (and is major geek cred).
KS: Why this?
KC: I draw inspiration most from things that are not specifically design related. I find the best ideas come from drawing on your experiences in other places. For me, games are a big part of that. I actually struggled with what to show you because there really are so many things that inspire me. I dip into lots of books and games. I get into betas a lot, playing for free and experiencing the game while they are building it. So, I get to see the things that they are considering as they are tweaking them. I learn a lot from that.
KS: What are some of the things that you learn from participating in this process?
KC: Engagement. That’s the biggest thing for games. How do you bring someone into a new experience who doesn’t necessarily have any conventions, and how do you keep them coming back? How do you keep them interested? And how do you balance that experience against other people’s (expectations) who are using it too? The social sciences become more and more applicable.
Let’s jump to your UX Week workshop, what’s it all about?
KC: My workshop essentially teaches anybody, whether they have illustration skills or not, why comics are a really effective way of communicating an idea. By the end of the day, anybody can come out of my workshop and generate comics to communicate design requirements, or create a comic for their homepage to communicate the benefits of their product to users.
KS: What about comics make them such an effective tool in the design process?
KC: People read them!
KS: So, you have something against the 80 page report? (laughing)
KC: Well, I am not saying that comics replace requirements and other documentation, but most people don’t need to read the 80 pages. There are some that do, but for most people they just want to know what is this thing that you are building and what does it do for people? So, when people read, that’s the first thing they’re looking for. It all boils down to the power of the comic being concise, of it being expressive, of it being engaging. People can put themselves into that story and relate to it. You can easily share it with other people and get feedback and easily change it.
KS: The idea is to represent a future that doesn’t exist yet, and do it in such away that people engage in that story.
KC: Yes, exactly. Another way that people communicate products’ stories is through video. Creating and editing a video is a lot of effort. So, if you are just trying to get an idea across quickly—sometimes stick figures will do.
Thinking about the design process, characterize the villain. What gets in the way of innovation?
KC: Tunnel vision. Getting stuck in this bubble where you start cycling around internally so much that you forget what you are building for.
Now, characterize the hero of innovation.
KC: Comics put the product in the frames—in the life of the user. It’s not just a persona, which is about a person, but it’s about how the person will use this thing in the context of their life. The hero is context (hell yeah!) The other hero is actually shipping!
As a product manager at Twitter, what comic hero do you most identify with?
KC: Who is that character? So, there’s nothing stops the juggernaut, and nothing moves the blob—neither of which is quite accurate, but what I am trying to convey is…
KS: Um, I have no idea what you are talking about right now (we are both cracking up)…
KC: Don’t worry about it (laughing). I’ll explain. So, someone had congratulated me on my new job (at Twitter) on LinkedIn, but was confused about what I actually do there because my job description says I attend meetings and write emails. That is my job. I am not a designer in my current position. I am not an engineer. I talk well to both groups because of my past and I strongly believe that a good product manager is one who sees ahead and deals with all of the crap so that no one else has to. I am a shield. I am someone like Plastic Man!
Identified: Kevin is Plastic Man!
60 Second Sketch Challenge. Draw a comic that depicts our interview today. Go!
60 Second Sketch Challenge: Kevin accepts the challenge!
Sketch 1: Grabbing some coffee before the interview.
Sketch 2: A depiction of Kevin talking.
Sketch 3: Kevin is still talking, and apparently I have fallen asleep
The caption reads, Coffee was not enough for Kendra.