Dr. Han Yu on Comics in Technical Communications

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Dr. Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and today I’m pleased to welcome Han Yu. She’s an Associate Professor at Kansas State University and she’s here to talk with us about her new book, The Other Kind of Funnies: Comics in Technical Communication, which talks all about how comics and comic strips can be involved in creating user help and other kinds of user documentation.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Han. Really excited to talk to you about your forthcoming book. You’re talking about the use of comics in tech comm and you say that tech comm has been slow to recognize comics as a legitimate medium, why might that be?

[Han Yu] That is a great question, and I think there are no simple answers here because I think a number of factors contributed to this. Within the US context, our society at large often view comics as kind of a juvenile, lowbrow form of communication. So, when we talk about comics, we tend to think of things such as you know the Superman or the like. So, they are something that is meant for entertainment, for fun, not professional, or serious.

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] So all of these connotations are very different than what people typically associate or would want to associate with technical communication and by people I mean a variety of stakeholders. Those of us who research and teach technical communication, those of us who practice it in industry, and those of us who commission it; so you’ve got managers, your clients. So, because technical communication, at least in the US context, has it’s root in engineering, those positivists emphasis of objectivity, reasoning, facts, data, they run these. So all of these can be at odds with the cultural image we have of comics. Also from a-a professional standpoint, technical communication is not by all means an established profession. I mean we have come a long way, we’re still young and we’re still trying to establish our professional identity in terms of trying to explain to our colleagues and management and clients what it is that we do. The value that we can bring to the documentation projects or the development projects. So, I think with these in an environment, there may be a lot of hesitation on the practitioners’ part to approach comics as the medium simply because they don’t want to be associated or being seen as being you know unprofessional.

[Weber] That’s a good point; is you know you don’t want to maybe put yourself out there and suggest a comic if someone is going to look down on that medium.

[Yu] Absolutely. And related to that is from the research in teaching perspective, there hasn’t been a lot of research at all on using comics in technical communication. So there’s not a lot of resources the practitioners can draw upon to say, “Here are some best practices we can follow,” and similarly as far as I know there hasn’t been any substantial effort to teach students how to use comics in technical communication. So because of all of these lacking: research, education, and training, we really can’t expect our students or practitioners to start going out there and feeling comfortable or feeling they’re adequately prepared to start using this medium. Everything, fit back together into this reality that I try to present in the book.

[Weber] So once we get over the stigma, what might technical communicators find appealing about using stigmas?

[Yu] There are a lot of appeals that can be offered via this medium. I think to start, comics engage readers because of our cultural association, as I mentioned earlier, of comics as something fun, because comics are often created to take on humorous. They don’t always do, but they can.

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] They’re very adapted to do that. So because of all of these, the very format of comics does tend to get readers attention. Now we commonly acknowledge in our field that readers are often not motivated to read documentations or other forms of technical communication. So the engagement factor can be tremendously important. First engaging the readers to view what we present to encourage instruction or any kind of information that we have for them.

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] So I think that engagement factor right there is important. But I think there’s a lot more, it’s not just that superficial first impression because they do facilitate communication and comprehension. There are multiple reasons, that we couldn’t get into, but I think I want to highlight a few things.

[Weber] Sure, yeah.

[Yu] So as a form of multimedia communication, comics combine multiple cues to offer what people call rich communication. So most obviously, anybody who has looked at a comic would know there are texts as well as visual elements and when I say visuals, I don’t just mean the typical kinds of you know illustrations or graphics-.

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] or what we see conventional piece of technical communication. There are a lot more in the comics. They are what the comic theorists or artists Will Eisner would call graphic storytelling

[Weber] Okay.

[Yu] So there are a lot of visuals there. So because of all this rich information, they tend to convey more than what text alone could and I think that-that enhances communication and comprehension. Another important thing that I talked about in the book is that because comics often involve a great amount of conversations and dialogues-.

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] -they can promote Bakhtin’s sense of dialogical discourse. So these discourses can help technical communicators to write beyond the typical voice, as we assume, and the typical voice of often a kind of a substitute voice for engineers. The voice of–of simply a various form of communication specialists, whereas with comics we can create obvious conversation between say engineer or a user, or a communication specialist and a user. Now those physical presence of a user’s voices on a page can help us to be more aware and conscious of the user’s needs, whether that’s cognitive need for information or affective or emotional need for other aspect of what we can and should offer in technical communication. I think those are some of the appeals comics can offer.

[Weber] Great. Interesting, with a dryer that I had gotten years ago, there was a comic of the dryer talking and explaining how to keep it safe, and you know I thought it was the silliest thing, but it was the only piece of documentation that I read with the dryer. You know I never opened the manual or anything and I still remember what the dryer told me about keeping-.

[Yu] There you go.

[Weber] Yeah. With that in mind, can you describe some particularly effective user help comics that demonstrate what this medium can achieve?

[Yu] I think with user help, I don’t know if you know Scott McCloud. His well-known comic, artist, and theorist rule was a series of understanding comics and-but he has also done probably lesser known a Google Chrome guide, which is an online document for them to offer some of the key engineering decisions behind the Google Chrome browser, and it uses the comics medium. And I think that’s a great example to show how comics can offer an engaging and easy to understand format to present an otherwise quote on quote “dry documentation”.

[Weber] Sure.

[Yu] That’s a good example as far as user guides go.

[Weber] Great, so it’s a Google Chrome guide in comic form? [Yu] Yep.

[Weber] Excellent. Are there any challenges or limitations aside from sort of the stigma that come with using comics for technical communication?

[Yu] Yeah, yeah, certainly. I’m glad you asked that because there are simply a number of limitations, or at least challenges. I think one of the limitations ties in with one of the appeals that I mentioned earlier. Because comics are an information rich medium, most obviously uses text and a lot of images, it could create a variety of design challenges. We can’t simply have text heavy documentation with you know a feel comic style or comic-ish images thrown in there and think, “Oh this is a comic-style documentation, right?”

[Weber] Right.

[Yu] That wouldn’t work. You really have to dedicate and plan ahead and conceive this piece that’s visual rich, it’s visual and graphic storytelling. So this can become unattractive from a number of perspectives, in terms of increased planning time, production time, increased simply volume, and then cost right? So, all of these can be unattractive for a number of stakeholders. And in addition, beyond simple logistics concern, trying to work with multiple textual and visual elements can necessarily complicate the design process and sometimes often with reduced readability of a page and I mentioned some of these examples in the book that I think haven’t negotiated with these challenges too well, and that’s-and that is one of the I think important challenges to consider. Another challenge I think is a dangerous stereotyping, racially, you know racial stereotyping or gender or otherwise.

[Weber] Sure.

[Yu] Because comics do put strong emphasis on portraying characters and people. That opens up a slippery slope towards stereotyping.

[Weber] Sure.

[Yu] These things, some of these things, entertainment comics and even the same issues can come up in using this media for technical communication.

[Weber] Right, right, that’s a good point. I really appreciate you talking with us about comics. I think you know that with the internet that seems like this might be something that’s easier to do. You know you mentioned the trouble with publishing, you know a lone comic in print form. So it’s definitely something to look out for and I think your book is very helpful in helping technical communicators recognize the potential of the mediums. I really appreciate you sharing with us. Can you tell us the name of the book one last time?

[Yu] It’s The Other Kinds of Funnies: Comics in Technical Communication. 

[Weber] Okay, great. Well thank you so much Han. I really appreciate it.

[Yu] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[Weber] Alright thanks.

Join the discussion


Episode 9