Interview with Scott McCloud
Joe Welinske, President of WritersUA, interviewed author Scott McCloud about his work with the Google Chrome Comic and visual communication. Scott will be the opening speaker for the 2009 Conference for Software User Assistance, March 30 in Seattle.
JW: Tell us a bit about your background and current activities.
SM: I've been making comics books and graphic novels since 1984. In 1993 I created a book called Understanding Comics which is a book-length comic book explaining how comics work. Almost immediately after that I became entranced with the idea of comics in digital spaces - the digital distribution of comics and the shape comics can take online. As a result of a talk I gave at Google in 2007, I was invited to develop a comic about how their Chrome browser works. Right now I'm working on a graphic novel.
How did the Google Chrome Comic come about and what was that experience like?
SM: Google felt that there was a potential to get Chrome across in a more meaningful way by using comics. We began by listening to the stories of the engineers and taping the interviews. As a piece of software exposition, it was terrific to show the relationships of the different parts of the browser spatially. And people think in spatial metaphors.
One of the biggest things was simply to humanize the process. Google is a very engineering oriented company. These are people with ideas about how software can work effectively and how the landscape of user interaction can be improved. We wanted to communicate the fact that Chrome was the product of a bunch of geeks sitting around and gesticulating to each other and coming up with great ideas.
Did you encounter any challenges in processing the technical aspects of the interviews?
SM: My father was an electrical engineer and I've always had a slightly geeky inclination. I had a natural curiosity for the subject area and that led me to my questions for the engineers. Using whiteboards in the interviews helped because most of the engineers would pull out a pen and scribble while they talked about things. This gave me a sense of the general intent of the engineers. Once I understood that, creating the comics was the easy part because comics are my language. The scripts themselves were in the engineer's own words so that made it easier.
How might we benefit from utilizing comics as opposed to traditional documentation?
SM: First of all, the visual element of comics changes the dynamic of communication with the audience. It distinguishes itself from a sea of text. While this is a more or less superficial aspect, it is effective from a marketing perspective. Secondly, and more importantly, it improves the reader's understanding. It often astonished me that there was so much technical information available for products, yet much of it lacked the explanations of why something should be done in a certain way. Documentation seemed to be oriented to the task of getting people from A to B without illuminating the landscape they were traveling through; the shape of it, the inter-relationships. And this is something images can do. We can say before we give you a specific solution that we can help you to see a whole of what you want to learn. We can give you a kind of cognitive altitude about what you are about to learn.
If someone wants to take on a more visual communication style, where do they start?
SM: As a communicator, I think it is useful when you are first brainstorming to sit with a couple of sharpies and some paper and see if you can block out your subject areas and think in terms of scale, separation and enclosures. For instance, if you have three things to talk about, what is their relative importance? Are some things a subset of others? Do some elements loom over others? Is there a particular sequence? All of these things can be represented spatially, whether you are an artist or not. If you can draw a rectangle, circle or stick figure, you can start to represent things visually for your own benefit and the benefit of your readers. At a certain point you may realize that those pictures might be valuable to others and you can get an illustrator to further develop the images.