Event Recap: Refresh DC, Comics, Design and Ross Nover

After last month’s Refresh DC (@refreshdc) event, when Sarah Mills pointed out the topic of this month’s event, I had to sign up.  Had to.  It had the word “comics” in it.  It was like saying, “Nathan Fillion (@nathanfillion , because why not?)” to a Firefly fan.

And may I say that it was absolutely worth it?  Maybe it’s just that I’m a cartoony-type person; maybe it’s that I have a design background; maybe it’s because it’s both.  I just feel like the more cross-pollination happens in any field related to art, the better.

Cartoon of Ross Nover speaking at Refresh DC event

He teaches, he cartoons, he designs, and he art-fights. See http://www.noverdesign.com to see what the last one means.

Our speaker, Ross Nover (@rosscott, www.systemcomic.com), is a man who wears many hats (see his website, http://www.noverdesign.com, for proof!), amongst which are cartoonist and designer.  He’s a delightful speaker.  I’m sure being a university instructor helps.

In his talk, he covered the ways in which the two disciplines can be seen to overlap – or rather, spring from the same basic ideas but take them in slightly different directions. An excellent illustration of this idea is found here, at the webcomic XKCD: http://xkcd.com/435

One good example (of which I couldn’t get a good picture, darn it!) was a simple map of the process between idea/concept and final execution in cartooning, logo design, and web design.  They all had the same basic path; the language and the end deliverable were the only real differences.

  • Cartooning: Idea > sketch > inks > color
  • Logo design: Idea > sketch > B&W version > color version
  • Web design: Concept > wireframes > design > development
Cartoon of Ross Nover explaining overlap of comics and design

There’s an overlap of concerns between designers and cartoonists.

So, Takeaway 1: The similarities between these two artistic disciplines are not too dissimilar.  This set up the rest of the takeaways.

Takeaway 2: Make it (visually) simple.  If it’s simple, it applies to everyone.  If an image is too specific, then it’s clearly not you. if it’s just vague enough to encompass everyone… then this awesome website, this great product, this Super Smart Customer Who Is Also Beautiful And Popular could be you.

Takeaway 3: Closure.  In this context, closure means that the designer/cartoonist has created a setup of a beginning and an end, but they didn’t put in how the beginning got to the end.  However, you still got it.  Your brain filled in the missing parts!  1) That makes you Very Smart. 2) That makes you feel good. 3) That makes you more inclined to like the product or service that has made you feel so Very Smart and good (or, in the case of cartooning, you enjoy the heck out of the story).

Takeaway 4: Make use of the entire available viewing space. It’s possible and powerful.  In the web world, that means taking advantage of the infinite canvas – the ability to scroll forever without reaching the end – or, in the case of Twitter, bleeding the image to the edges of the frame, which gives a sense of environment, of expanse, of possibility and lack of constraints.  In short, it’s a visual way to subtly make the viewer feel immersed and engaged.

Takeaway 5: “Less.”  You’ve heard of “Less is more”; you may even have heard of “Do less”.  Ross just says, “Less.”  To spell it out: If you can accomplish anything with fewer words, images, anything – do it.  It’s better.

A good tool to accomplish this maxim is to apply constraints or have them applied for you.  Clients will do this; they want just two colors for their site, they want only this specific font, they want everything conveyed in a single-page microsite.  Ross says that this is a really good thing.

Comic of Ross Nover explaining how constraints make artists creative

“Cornered animals lash out. And when designers face constraints…”

Comic of Ross Nover explaining how constraints make artists creative

Approximate quote, because I have goldfish memory.

Final takeaway: PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE.  If you want to be good at something, do it.  Do it over and over.  Keep doing it over and over.  You can’t help but improve.

I was really excited about hearing this talk.  I was all grins when Ross extensively cited one of the best (and my favorite) comic theory books, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (http://ow.ly/eLiD6). If you haven’t read it, DO.  It’s brilliant!.  And it was extra-exciting to finally hear someone refer to and promote webcomics as a medium, not just because they’re a wonderful medium (They really are! See referred list below) but because they provide an even closer comparison to web designers, tying the whole talk together.

Well done, sir!

The List of Referrals

http://www.systemcomic.com/ is Ross’s webcomic and a good example of the value of constraints on creativity.

www.johnnywander.com Another great example of doing creative stuff within constraints.

http://snacklove.tumblr.com/ Yet another example of the above, this time about food! (He didn’t refer to this in the talk, but it’s a worthwhile example)

www.questionablecontent.net (NSFW for language and some suggestive images/themes.  Used to illustrate how daily practice results in improvement; see the very first and very last comics for proof.).

http://www.girlswithslingshots.com/gwscast/ (Also NSFW for language and suggestive images/themes. Used to demonstrate how being just distinctive enough makes different elements and designs stand out from one another. That may seem a little counter to the suggestion that making your visuals a little more generic is more engaging because each customer can superimpose themselves on it, but one has to strike a balance between the two.).

http://www.skindeepcomic.com/characters-2/ (Another good example of striking the balance between cartoony-enough-to-refer-to-anyone and distinct-enough-to-be-instantly-recognizable.  Less NSFW than the two above, but it may have a four-letter word or two.).

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Sarah Jedrey

About Sarah Jedrey

Sarah wears lots of hats, touching everything from content marketing to front-end development. She is the main client trainer at Matrix Group. She also edits Matrix Group's YouTube series, The Matrix Minute, as well as screencasts and videos for clients. When she's not at work, she's car-singing, cooking or creating comics and illustrations. She has one attention-seeking cat named Mouth.

2 thoughts on “Event Recap: Refresh DC, Comics, Design and Ross Nover

  1. Sounds like a great topic! I used to draw political cartoons so I can certainly appreciate the time and planning that goes into them.

  2. If I could go back and re-edit, I would say the first takeaway was this: “These two artistic disciplines are not too dissimilar.”

    Curse you, English!

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