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How Comics Can Make Us Better Designers

Ross Nover

Graphic design and sequential art share a common ancestry. As two disciplines that share the integration of typography and images, there are many problems that both designers and comickers have had to solve. In this fun talk, Ross Nover will be reviewing the comics medium and various points of inspiration that designers can learn from their long-lost cousins, the comic artists.

How Comics Can Make Us Better Designers from Refresh Bmore on Vimeo.

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Ross: Hey guys, how you doing?

Audience member: Woo!

Ross: Go Ravens!

Audience member: Yeah!

Ross: It seemed like a good thing to start with. All right, cool.
Let's start with this, how many of you guys are designers
by trade? Well consider yourself, I mean? How many of you
guys are developers, more on the coding side of things? And
other? What other do we have here? All right, a fair amount
of other. Cool. All right.

Comic people? Illustrators at all? Doodlers? Yes, obviously. Anyone
who's sitting in a meeting is a doodler. Cool. All right.
My talk this evening is how comics can make us better
designers. Now obviously there's an assumption in there
that A), you are a designer or B), you want to be a better

I think in this day and age, it's honestly true that everyone pretty
much has to or already is a designer. Oh jeez, I forgot to
change my hashtag. Anyway, sorry it's what you get when you
save ads to make a new presentation based on the... Sorry.
The real hashtag's back there. Really nice anyway, there's
the assumption.

I think everyone is a designer these days, I think you can't help it.
If you have a blog, you have to decide how that blog looks,
or what the format is or whatever, or you have your
Facebook page, or you have the stuff you buy at craft fairs
or whatever. You wind up designing sh*t all the time. Oh
yeah, I said sh*t. That's going to happen a lot. We're
drinking Natty Boh so, it's fine. So yeah. As long
as I've been doing design, I've been doing a lot of other

A little bit about me for those that didn't read about it. This is
the screenshot of my website. I do a lot of things as Sarah
mentioned. My site just says, "Hi, I'm Ross. I'm a
designer, an educator, a comicker and an art-fighter."

Real quick, I've been teaching. I teach at American University. I've
been an adjunct there for six years. I was full-time for
two of those. I have a lot of students, who therefore
wonder why I'm bothering them on Twitter, a lot. In
addition to that, I'm also an art fighter. How many guys
have heard of Super Art Fight, local Baltimore legend,
Super Art Fight?

Super Art fight, if you've never heard of us, this gives you at least
a little bit of an idea. Super Art fight is the greatest
live art competition in the known universe. Known universe,
so there's still a little room for plenty of that.
Before I forget, March 30th, the Ottobar, be there. We're
going to have an amazing show. I think it's Super Art Fight
15 if you're going by Wrestlemania terms.

It's Pictionary meets pro wrestling. It's a live action art
competition. It's pretty epically amazing and a lot of fun.
I'm one of the emcees of that and I help run things behind
the scenes, and I try to help out with the design of
everything and stuff like that when I can.

I'm also a designer though. I went to school at American University
for graphic design. Before that I had no idea what design
was. I was applying to schools and I put undecided on every
single one. I didn't know what it was.

I got to the last application I was filling out for college, it was
for American University, and I was sick of putting
undecided on the things. I was worried they were going to
judge me for being undecided. Every tour you go on tells
you that they don't care if you change your major and it's
easy to change your major.

So I didn't know what it was but I saw graphic design on the list and
I thought, "The designing of graphics sounds interesting.
Sure, let's go with that. Okay, yeah." So I wound up
majoring in graphic design. The idea of wearing this to
work on a fancy day really appealed to me, and the idea of
doing what we get to do as designers as well.

I also am now the... I don't know why it's coming up that color, but
whatever. I help run Friendly Design Company. We're an
interactive and branding design firm in the DC area, but
clients are everywhere so if you need anything, let me

When I'm not doing all of those other things, if I'm not busy enough,
I also make comics. I've been making comics since, I think
I was around eight years old. I loved the idea of making
comics. I'm ashamed as sh*t say that I really liked
Garfield at a young age, which I mean, he hates Mondays,
what's not to like? We've got a lot in common, me and

I got into making comics and I've been doing that kind of while I've
being doing everything else ever since. Just to give you a
little bit of an idea what that looks, this is one of my
comics. I do a series now called The System. The System
uses this kind of style of imagery as the characters, if
you will.

It's really icon-based. For those of you that are designers, it's all
done in 13-point Helvetica, new, bold, sometimes italic,
and it's all vector art which is really fun and nice. I
show this one because first of all it kind of exemplifies
what I try to do, but also the term "Rosscott's Law" which I invented with this comic somehow found
its way to Urban Dictionary. Which now is a term that
means, the faster the computer--the faster it breaks, which
I pretty much whole-heartedly agree with. That's one.

Here's another on the design process just so you get a sense kind of
what these things can look like.

Also, basically the design process involves a lot of frustration, a
lot of being annoyed at everyone around you, and then
finishing just before the deadline and then drinking, so
you get a sense.

Also, if you've ever seen these before, probably my biggest claim to
fame is working on these two things, which are two charts
about the internet that were on the Internet. The
Internet's very self-preferential that way. Also because I
love to say, "B*tches love charts." When I say b*tches I
mean everyone on the internet loves charts. So if you make
a chart and you put it on the internet it'll be a good time.

This first one is on sharing on the internet. My friend Caldwell
who co-wrote and did all the illustrations with me, he and
I both were just sick of our comics getting ripped off and
put on [Engar] and stuff without credit, so we made this
whole chart where basically the whole point is it's really
easy to just give credit where it's due. But what a lot of
people do is just go way out of their way to just not give
credit and how annoying that is for artists.

We did this like two and one-half years ago and it's really become
like an ongoing trend. We weren't the first, but we're
certainly not the last.  Been going
ever sense is this argument about attributions. Basically
what it boils down to is if you like something, you go to
the internet, and there's a series of tubes...

You work your way through and you have two options, you either give
credit where it's due, and that makes you awesome because
sharing is awesome, or you don't give credit and you rip
off the watermark that they've put in there, and you give
your own credit, or you replace it or whatever.

Then f*ck you, you're killing the internet. And the internet, of
course, is a cat because the internet is made of cats and
it's an Indian crying one single tear. Old school

Then after that we got a lot of feedback. There was a lot of
comments, the most comments I've ever got on a post, of
people being surprisingly mad about it. I didn't know why
you could be mad about us saying please give credit where
it's due, but apparently people are very mad about that.

So we decided to make a chart about how mad people got in their
comments. The basic idea is the more you comment on
something on the internet, the more of a dick you
automatically are, so this whole thing kind of goes through
the levels.

If you just don't comment on the internet, then you've taken the high
road, but the more you comment and the more you get
entrenched in the arguments that happen on the internet,
the worse off you are until you reach dickfinity which is
down here. Dickfinity, second term that is now in Urban

Those two, claims to fame right there. If I ever have to make a
resume again, that's going on there somehow and the right
job will love that. Then we made these wonderful dick

These are comics and I'm really proud of them but also I think you
can tell that a designer worked on them. There's good
spacing and margins. There's an internal consistency and
all that stuff. We're working on a third, it's about
creating content for the internet. It basically starts
with, "Do you have a dog?" Then from there it goes to
either yes, or no, or woof and then it goes... Well, we're
still working on it, but that gives you a sense of kind of
what I do.

So why am I talking about comics and designing? What's the overlap
there? I found in my time, maybe because I'm looking for
it, there's a lot of overlap between comics and design.
Just to kind of run through this, up here I have what I
call the old-school references. Down here I have what I
call the new-school references, so there's a lot of overlap
between designers and comic artists. There always has been.

You've got people like Will Eisner who incorporated a lot of what are
considered "design principals" into his work, a lot with
typography, and doing stuff like this cover where really
integrating the fact that it's a cover into the artwork of
the actual cover itself, really interesting stuff.

People like Chris Ware who, if you're not familiar with his stuff, I
don't know about you guys. I'll talk about it later, the
creative sh*tstorm, which is when you see work that is so
good that you wish you'd done it and you're kind of mad you
didn't. Every time I see Chris Ware stuff, that's exactly
what I think of.

Chips Cannon who's a book designer who's now writing comics. And on
the end, that's Seymour Chwast at Push Pin where he works.
He's done a lot of illustration and comics related stuff.

Down here in the second row, these are all web comics' people. How
many of you guys read web comics? Any web comics people out

Woo. All right, so woo with me if you've heard of these. Johnny
Wander by Yuko and Ananth.

Audience members: Woo.

Ross: Yellow Peril by Jamie "Angry Zen Master" Noguchi for those of
you that know him from Super Art Fight.

Audience members: Woo.

Ross: Here we've got Scott Kurtz from PVP and Steven Napierski from
Dueling Analogs. All these guys, trained graphic designers
who also do web comics, so there's a lot of overlap even

Now, I think they're related because looking at... And this is my
friend Caldwell that helped with the chart, the man loves
charts apparently. There's really not that much difference
on the scale of skills that you have in comparison between
designers over here and comic people, which I guess would
be these two over here.

Really the only difference is, we've got a lot of the same ideas and
a lot of the same experiences, really only difference is,
can you draw, it's either yes or no. I would argue that
there are plenty of designers that can draw and plenty of
cartoonists who own and design, which is kind of the other
big branching point, but pretty much there's a good
relationship there. They're really not that far off from
each other on the grand scale of things.

There's a lot of skills that you need in order to do comics. Here's a
design on this end and comics on this end, and there's a
lot of overlap between the two in terms of the skills that
you need to do them. For both you need to know how to tell
a story and how to do that well. Nowadays every client is
asking, "Can you help us tell our story?" That's a big kind
of buzz phrase that you hear a lot.

Editing, of course. Composition. Illustrating when necessary. The
combination of words and visuals which I think is probably
the biggest thing that unites the two sides. Using what I
call Adobe, the professional programs, the digital
publishing kind of stuff whether it's your Adobes, or your
CorelDRAWs, or your QuarkXPRESS. That was a joke, nobody
runs Quark anymore.

Or just general what I'm calling your "web stuff" what I use to mean
getting your stuff out there on the web, being web savvy.
The things that has your parents calling you on the phone
asking you how I log into Facebook because it keeps
flashing 12 or whatever it is, like that kind of stuff.

Then just [creative emotion]. Both designers and developers have to
get their name out there in this new society that's very
different nowadays than handing out your business card.
Though I have business cards and they're awesome and if you
want one then see me after, but there's a lot of creative
promotion that happens for both.

The only difference I would say is that designers tend to deal more
with clients and Helvetica and comic artists deal more with
writing, and thoughts, and poop jokes and things along
those lines.

So there's this XKCB chart for those of you guys that read... Any
XKCB fans out there? XKCB chart

Audience members: Woo.

Ross: Yeah awesome. XKCB has this great chart about sociologists are
basically just applied psychologists or applied biologists
or applied.. which are applied... basically all mathematicians. The guy
who writes it is a mathematician so of course he's going to
say that.

But I would say the same thing is generally true of designers. We're
all using visual communication. That's really what all of
it is. We're using the same tools, and the same ideas, and
the same kind of rules for doing it, just applying them in
very different ways.

Because we're doing that, I think there's a lot that designers can
learn from just the way comic artists tend to work. Comic
artists have found unique ways of applying certain things
and unique approaches that there's no reason that designers
couldn't use as well. That's why we're all here.

Also, I'll just show this because I find it really interesting. When
people go to make comics, or logos, or web design, its a
very similar process. You go from the big to the small. You
go from the idea, or the content in the case of web design,
and then you go from rough, and then you kind of narrow it
down, and then you get to the final kind of process. Even
that process is one that's being very similar to these

I have this in three basic sections. First we're going to talk about
the art within comics, then we're going to talk about the
art of comics itself, the panels, and then we're going to
talk about the overall structure of the comics.

So real quick, art in comics. When you deal with art in comics, you
have a lot of characters. Now the interesting thing about
characters is, here we see a panel from Ctrl+Alt+Delete and
a panel from Girls with Slingshots. Now, I mentioned these
two because I think this is a very poor example of
character and this is a very good example of character.

The reason being, when you go to create characters, there's a rule of
creating them where you want them to be very easily
identifiable from each other. You don't want every single
character to look like another dude who's a big guy with a
beard. If you have that for every character then your
audience isn't going to be able to tell them apart from
each other which we see here.

These are very hard to identify from each other when simplified down.
These are all very easy to identify from each other when
simplified down. Which I think makes it easier to just for
the eye to read visually. This is something that designers
encounter in a very different way when we talk about
typography, the idea of using all caps for text which makes
it very hard to distinguish the letters from each other
because they're all the same height, similar widths versus
lowercase where you have all those ups and downs and all
those tops and bottoms for your eye to latch onto as you're

The same is true for all these famous characters. We've got a lot
here that you might recognize, Casper the Friendly Ghost
down here, Squidward, and Dexter's Lab, and Mr. Krabs, and
Charlie Brown next to him and stuff like that. The idea of
creating a character silhouette becomes a very interesting
concept that you want to make unique.

Now Saul Bass, awesome logo designer but I would argue that I always
seem to get these mixed up from each other. They're very
similar and they're very simple. Let's note these were made
a good 50 years ago at this point, if not longer for some
so, the dude, I'll cut him some slack, also because he's

The truth is, nowadays I don't think you can get away with that stuff
nearly as easily, and that's not just because clients want
gradients. What makes for a good logo nowadays is it's easy
recognizability and that gets right back to that same idea
of silhouettes.

I think, for the most, part if you see a silhouette of a bat, you
know it's Batman, there is no question. And the Apple logo
and a lot of these where you can make them out zooming by
at 60 miles an hour on a billboard, which has as much to do
with its form as with its color, and with its indentation,
and all those other details.

While that's true about characters from a silhouette aspect, there's
also an idea that we deal with a lot with characters of
specificity. Now specificity is a term that coders like to
use, so specificity means how specific is your CSS rule,
for example. How specific are you being.

Now, in the tone that a lot of this comes from is "Understanding
Comics." Have any of you guys read "Understanding Comics"
at all? Okay. Well, Amazon, your best friend, seriously.
This book will teach you more about design than some of the
design classes out there or most blog posts. Brilliant

But Scott McCloud argues in this book that there is kind of a
universality to the more cartoonish the imagery gets, that
it's lost the more realistic you get, going the other way.
What happens is, this guy is this guy and he is only this
guy, but when you get to here about, that could be a lot of
guys, this could be most guys and that could be anybody. So
there's this skill of it where this is exactly one person
that most feel photographic realistic.

Meanwhile, on the other end, that could be just about anybody. That
could be me, that could be you and that's something that
cartoonists have known about for a long time and used.

I wrote this comic a while back about snow in DC. When it snows in
DC, people just lose their goddamn minds. What's really
funny is when I wrote this, I put it up pretty much... I
think I'd watched the Blues Brothers that weekend. I'm
pretty sure.

When I put that up, there were, I took this screenshot a while back
but it was 47 comics, all people being like, "Dude, that's
just what it's like here. You must be here," because I
didn't say where here was, I just said "here". People were
like, that's sounds like you're in Detroit, that's what
it's like in Portland, that's what it's like in the Pacific
Northwest, everywhere was writing in that that's what it's
like here too.

I think that has a little bit to do with the writing and keeping the
writing big, but also do with the artistry. You don't see
the DC Capitol in here, you don't see all those things that
would tell you exactly where it is; so therefore, it could
be anywhere. And because it could be anywhere, it might be
where you are.

So there's that ability for universality that allows for it. Plato
talks about this so if you really want to get into the
Republic and the [cave] and the ideal of [a chair] and all
that stuff, you could go there...

There's this idea of a photo being someone whereas the face could be
anyone and I think we've seen this over time with video
games too. Video games used to be like that and I think
there is a lot more ability to connect with a character
when it was that versus this because the thing is the
technology's improved and anytime the technology improves
people want to show off that technologies have improved.

There's this idea of how do we show the technologies improved, let's
just keep adding details. Let's just put more rivets on his
coat and put in the stitching and all that stuff, but I do
honestly think that the people that deal with Mario now are
way less interested than the people that used to play a
hell of a lot of Mario back then.

The same was true for your Galagas and your Pac-Mans and your
[Pitfalls] and all that kind of stuff. The more vague it
is, the more you maybe think it's me, but that's totally
not me unless I grew a really sweet mustache. But the same
is true right because here is what I tried to design.

When you have icons like this, this is a trash can I never owned in
my life, but this is an icon for trash in general. I
recognize this icon as an icon for trash. It could be my
trash, it could be the trash I'm using. This is a specific
someone's trash. This is exactly why I hate Skeuomorphism.

How many of you guys know what Skeuomorphism is, lets make sure. Skeuomorphism is
the idea of putting these naturalistics details to a design
that nowadays when you apply the interactive design doesn't
necessarily make sense and this has been a big shift
between, you've got Apple going with all these details.
This leather etched icon which is suppressive based on some
leather etching that was on some private jet that Steve
Jobs plane. So of course, he puts it in the icon.

But I never once had a private plan be that had that kind of leather
etching. My private planes had totally different leather.
The same is true with notes and for the life of me, I can
not tell you what game center is trying to do, but like all
these things, they're so specific that they make our
relation that if you get the relation that's great, but if
you don't it alienates that audience, because they don't
necessarily get that reference unless you are familiar with
that same cultural specific reference, it doesn't
necessarily work.

Which is actually why really like metro so much. I know that sounds
crazy, but I love that idea of why do we have to try and
put in these features that don't necessarily make sense
when you're using that kind of media so that I'm allowed to
kind of fill in my own details with.

It also applies that same idea, to writing. This is a great post the
one that went up on A List Apart-- a great site for
good articles on web designing and all that and when you
give specific neighborhoods you are specifying exactly
which neighborhood and there's that from a US perspective,
user experience perspective, that's a lot harder for people
to exactly associate with because then they have to figure
out how they associate themselves and then make that extra

But if you take those same ideas and just make them big and just put
then into general terms of where then that way they're able
to apply it to themselves much more easily. They're able to
make that connection much more easily. So you can apply it
to the visuals but also to just the writing in the way that
the writing works and is therefore more inclusive.

That brings us to paneling. Now, panel design is something that's
very unique to comics. Now, this is Wally Woods' 22 Panels
That Always Work, which is sometimes found online as 22
Panels that don't suck and it's basically 22 different ways
of setting up a shot that . . . I think cinema
photographers can take as much from this as comic artists
because this is just 22 different perspectives and panels
that can all work.

And if nothing else it was a good lead in to talk about the different
ways that comic artists use panels, but it's also just a
helpful resource when you are looking at composition. If
you Google it out there, plenty easy to find.

Now the interesting thing about panels is no matter what they're
about, now these are obviously just to show you the
different ideas, but they're also in order. And I think
naturally and just think in your head if you did this for a
minute, you try and read them in some sort of order, like
here the guy and maybe hers looking at this girl and now
they're talking and now they're about to kiss and you kind
of in order even though this wasn't necessarily meant to be
read in order.

I think anytime you put two images next to each other, your mind
tries to fill in the gap. You fill in that pattern and
figure out why they're next to each other. It's pattern

Now this is done by a guy named Shannon Wheeler who writes Too Much
Coffee Man, if you've ever read it. What do you think is
happening here, honestly? This is when you tell me.

Audience member: [He's going to hit the cat].

Ross: He's going to [hit cat]. What's he do? Kicks the cat. So he never
actually kicks the cat. That's the really interesting thing
about comics is they make this point in understanding
comics. You see him running up to the cat and you see his
leg out there, but you don't actually see him make any
contact with the cat. Your mind fills in that gap and your
mind completes the picture of the cat getting kicked.

So your mind's an asshole basically. What's so interesting about that
is there's so many times in comics where the picture of it
is in your head of how it went down or exactly what was
said and you go back and read it and that's never actually
exactly what happened because your mind is completing that

That's what's called closure in comics. Which is the phenomenon of
observing the parts of perceiving the whole. Which is a
really interesting thing that your brain does for you. Now
that's something as designers we can just manipulate.

What we can do is we can have things like this where you might see a
black triangle, but there is no black triangle. There are
just three Pac-Mans getting together and having a party.
You can use that when you actually go to create imagery.

What happens when you create that imagery and you use that to your
advantage, people have this a-ha moment for you where what
happens here, we've got C3PO here and we've got Boba Fett
over here. But it's also these scene where it's using
C3PO's eyes but it's also the two moons of suns of
[inaudible 00:28:24]... Sorry. Then over here we've got
[festin] in the sky but it's also the kind of face mask of
Boba Fett.

That's really cool, but I think what makes your brain think it's
cool, I mean it is cool is that your brain is completing
that picture for you. That's closure again. That's that
same idea, that's that same process happening and anytime
you're able to do that as a designer, you're able to do
some really cool stuff.

These are more by the same designer. This is a guy named Olly Moss if
you want to look him up. He does a lot of work for manga
which does a ton of great posters that sell out in about
two seconds every time they go up on sale. They're really

I think that maybe the first time was a fluke or an idea, but now
it's kind of his trademark to me anyway because he does
this a lot and I think that's great when you're able to
take that one thing and make it two things. You're able to
make people's brains complete the picture. You make them do
the work.

There's a psychology idea, I think I learned it in social psychology
but I slept though social psychology so I'm not exactly
sure where I learned it, but the idea is the more effort
people accomplish the more they want to feel rewarded for
the effort they already put in. And because of that idea, I
think when people see this and their brains complete the
picture, and they have that closure moment, that a-ha
moment, they go through that process and then they feel
smart for doing it when all they did was look at it and
interpret it.

But they get to have that moment for themselves, and by having that
moment for themselves, they feel smart and by feeling
smart, they like it. Then they associate feeling smart with
the poster and the poster would like that.

Just a couple more because I like these things. This is part of an
IBM campaign. There are tons of these and they are so cool.
You've got the USB going up and the pendant going down and
the coffee and cigarettes were under and the ampersand
right there which is just cool. And logo design, I think
this is logo design at it's best. You can't always do this
obviously, but if you can, it's so great when you can get
away with it.

FedEx logo, how many of you have never seen the arrow before. You
seem like a smart crowd- I bet you have. But down here
we've got Mona Lisa, pasta and pizza and I judged this
design competition in Richmond a while back and it was one
of the entries that really was like "ah, you've got a
pasta," and it's an "L" and an "M" and it's so great when
it all works.

It all works towards it, it all helps that idea. When you're a
designer, you're trying to get ideas across and this gets
all of it across really well and really easily. I think if
there's one place that you can do this, I think logo
design's probably the best. Now, to try and quantify this
idea, how do you go about creating this on purpose.

There's a guy named [Frank Chimero] who's written a book and he's got
a great fascinating blog and does a lot of cool stuff. He
came up with this post they did with how to have an idea
and what he said to start with is to start with by
brainstorming out who that subject is, what that thing
unique. so the example here is Chuck Norris.

So who is Chuck Norris? Chuck Norris is a lot of things. He's beard,
he's good guy, he's Texas, he's martial arts and then he
kind of went off from there. That if you look at this
chart. If you make a chart for whatever the thing is that
you're trying to come up with these ideas together are, if
you take any two things that are on different branches of
the original, then the only way for your brain to connect
to complete that closure moment is through the middle,
which is through Chuck Norris. So if you show bearded
martial arts, you're showing Chuck Norris just by having a
beard and martial arts in the same thing.

Here's kind of a brainstorm out of that idea. Here is a sheriff's
star with a beard which might be a Texas thing, and the
sheriff thing, and the beard, karate chopping a wooden
star, a ninja throwing a sheriff's star. [Hi-ya, yee haw]
the word. Swooping crane... or a black
belt buckle, which I love. I love that black buckle idea.

All of these things, the only connection, the only way for your brain
to understand why the hell that happened is Chuck Norris
and that works pretty well as approach.

I love this ad. Have any of you guys seen this before? I love this
ad. So what do you have here? You've got a fork and you've
got throwing up the horns. So we've got food and rock and
roll. It's for Hard Rock Cafe. I thought that was so smart.
This is a perfect example of what you can do with that
process. Using that closure to your advantage, having
people's minds complete that picture which I just love.

That's it on closure. Now panel [length], the way you make panels,
you can have them have different, one of the things we have
to our advantages is the layer which designers do all the
time and you can imply a different amount of time based on
how wide or long or tall a panel can be. Up here at the top
we have one long panel and down here at the bottom we have
three short ones and the amount of time it feels like it
went across even though we're showing you the same thing,
it feels different.

It feels like a different amount of time has passed between the two
which is a really useful tool. Which basically sets up the
idea visually the more space something, the more emphasis
you want it to have, the more time it takes up.

Designers, we put the big things up front, front and center, top
center, left-hand corner maybe. Visual hierarchy we call
it, right? But there's also this idea of having it
represent time. I read this comic about how coffee works.
If you drink coffee, it tends to be either too hot or too
cold, but it's really only perfect for six seconds, maybe
is seconds, so that one's shorter and the rest are longer
because it's hot for too long and it's too cold for too
long and the middle is what you're left with.

Here we have manga. This is, I couldn't even tell you what mangas
this is from because to me this is just every manga I've
ever seen. There's magic, there's a schoolgirl, you can
almost see up her skirt, I'm not sure why. There's a
squirrel. What's really interesting here is there's
something really interesting that happens in the inch in
between the edge of the page and almost edge of the page.

There's a really interesting thing that happens when something goes
off the page and it doesn't quite go off the page. When
something goes off the page, it feels like it's extending
in every direction out past that, but when it doesn't go
off the page it feels very constrained.

The same thing is true when it comes to design. In web design we see
this a lot. Let's just make it as wide screen as it can go,
whereas this is very constrained. It's very different type
of site obviously. This up here is DC-ist which is kind of a
local events blog and down here is Twitter's home page.  Just two examples I could find.

But this photo feels like we are very contained within it. Here is a
moment her is contained within this space but down here,
this photo goes all the way to the edges of the browser no
matter how big your browser can be and that implies a
certain level of infinity to that moment that you don't
quite get with this.

This feels like a moment, this feels like it just keeps continuing
out no matter what. That idea of that wide screen approach,
I think someone can really use that advantage is includes
website. They do the same kind of thing where creating that
just by going to those edges. You just feel like these
things keep going they feel larger than they would feel if
they were just a centimeter in from those edges by going to
the edges themselves.

Now when it comes to panels, there's a lot of panel types. Scott
McCloud done the researching terms of what types of panels
there are. When you have 82 panels next to each other, it
only turns out six different ways you can make that
transitioning happening. There's what's called moment to
moment, and action to action, and subject to subject and
aspect to aspect and non [inaudible 00:37:39] and we look
at these you can use them differently.

You can use them each to your advantage once you acknowledge what
they all are, turns out US comics only use the same type
over and over again which tends to be action to action or
subject to subject. But Asian comics and manga and a lot of
other stuff, they tend to use all of them way more. And so
I think the more you can be aware that they all can exist,
the more you can use that stuff.

As designers we all the time have to use more than one photo and
anytime we use that we can control that. We can decide that
process and how it can look. Now it can work. But we can
also choose the word choice. We can choose the way the
moments are represented. Well you can also choose the words
that go with those choices.

Down here, this is kind of a full photo of that chart I showed you
earlier where on one end we have photographic and on the
other end, and instead of having here which is iconic,
there's this idea of connecting icons and literature is the
idea of words because words are kind of like icons when you
get right down to it.

Therefore when you get into those ideas, this is a really interesting
kind of pairing that happens. What's interesting is we've
got artists over here on one end and writers over here on
the other and for some reason they're considered separate
but I think just by seeing the bridge in between we start
to kind of fill in that gap a little bit.

Not only do we get to decide what images to show and what order to
show them in, but we also get to decide what words should
go with those images. Whether it's a comic like this or
whether it's a full on annual report or homepage of a
website or whatever.

This right here is just two random panels that I think you're closure
again will try and figure out what the story is here. I try
this as my international symbol of bullshit so that kind of
tells a quick story of well she's annoyed and he's excited
and there's a lot of bullsh*t happening so you can tell
that story any way you want.

Just to give you an example what I mean when I say the words the
image can change each other, can complete each other and we
can use them to our advantage. Here we have what appears at
first glance to be either the origin of Batman or some
form of robbery, just very simply. But just going up
looking at it a different way, adding different words to
that, you can really change the message of it to really
anything you want.

This is an idea we would call in design, a verbal visual. I have my
students do this a lot because just by adding a different
message, you totally change the way you look at these two
people. They go from just holding up their hands to holding
up their hands in huge excitement at how awesome that gun

Maybe this is West Virginia, I don't know. The Internets figured this
out, you have this photo and then by adding the words,
you've changed the of that photo, right? I love this one.
I've got to be honest, I think the thing that took me the
longest time to pick out was which internet meme to show

But it's true. I mean, this makes you read the whole image
differently right? Why don't we do that more? Advertising
does this a bit.

This was an HSBC campaign a few years ago where they had similar
photos anyway, where just by adding different words over
it, it changes the meaning of the photo. So down here you
have someone with a shaved head. Is it styled? Is it a
soldier? Is it a cancer survivor? Three very different
interpretations to the same image. Just by adding one word,
you read it totally differently.

Misfortune so it's like I lost my wallet, Obligation, I should return
that wallet, or temptation, I'm just going to steal that
wallet. So there's the ability of words to change the way
you read an image which [inaudible 00:42:18] is trying to
do with that same pairing. But I don't know why we don't do
it more with design, why we don't do it more in websites,
why we don't have on a homepage of a website, why don't we
do something like this?

Why don't we take something and try to turn it with the words we put
with it? Why do we feel the need to reiterate, why do we
feel the need to show an image of clothes on sale and then
put sale under it. We know that already.

Chip Kidd gives a great talk. It's one of the TEDtalks, you should
find it where he talks about if you put a picture of an
apple and you write the word apple under it, you're just
repeating yourself because we already know it's an apple
because we're showing an apple. You might as well do
something new with the words, otherwise you're just
repeating yourself. I know as web people, you plan for
redundancy; that's a big thing with code and... what's

Audience member: Failing gracefully.

Ross: Failing gracefully, exactly. That's important and you want to make
sure no matter what you wind up with a good think. From the
design standpoint I think we should be trying to do more of
this kind of approach.

For a storytelling standpoint, I want to tell a quick story
interestingly enough now. Fancy tomato ketchup, a while
back I needed to write a comic, when you do comics you
often you always need to write a comic because you ruin
your update schedule. It's kind of like falling off the
wagon, you're screwed.

I needed to write a comic, I found myself looking at a bottle of
fancy ketchup and I just had the thought, that fancy
ketchup, I don't know why it's called Fancy, much less
extra fancy. What is fancy about that? Not to get too
Seinfeld, but what's the deal with that, really?

It's really hard to know what to do with that though, how do you go
about writing that? Now, there's this great quote that less
is more which designers like to use which is a great idea
but the thing is I think we could simplify that. I think
the same tenants could apply. I think we can just shorten
that to just less. I mean why not, right? That same will

Some of my favorite comics out there are doing that very same thing.
On the left is three nuts, three nuts takes the four panels
of peanuts, cuts off the last one, it becomes extremely
depressing automatically and Garfield minus Garfield takes
Garfield, subtracts Garfield from it, very similar.

Down here, there's not enough room for all three of us, and then it's
just Snoopy out in the rain. The end. No resolution to
that. He's still there. And all of these, they just get so

You got John sitting there. Good times can't last forever. Part of
the joy is knowing it used to be completed, but at the same
time, by shortening is, I think this is the Garfield that
would hit a way wider audience. I mean you would kind of
have to rename it Sad John the comic strip, but Sad John
the comic strip should be in every paper across this
country. I really think so. So I go with this. Fancy
ketchup. Nope. I thought that kind of summed it up pretty

Now, when it comes to these, I really try and take that tenet to the
extreme as possible. This is my design brain not being able
to shut off while my comic brain is working because this is
the file I go to open up when I go to work on it. And as
you can see there's a lot of guides and there's a lot of
rules to it.

This is as big as that text box will ever be and it's in that font.
It's never bigger, it's never smaller. Most of them doing
something totally different. This is what opening book's
like when you go to write. That's a lot of constraints.
That's pulling in the constraints out of my brain that I
use when I'm doing design when I'm given only so much text
from clients or a certain amount of budget from clients and
trying to excel within those constraints as much as
possible, which is when I realized how much graphic
designers had to do with [dominatrices].

We all wear a lot of black when we work within restraints, that kind
of thing. I think this same idea though of less can be
useful in a lot of ways. Sometimes that can mean the simple
things like if you don't know where to start with a
project, at least work within a grid. Grid design is a
great, great thing. From a coding standpoint, it makes life
easier. From design standpoint, it gives you a place to

Copy editing, less text is always more impactful than more text.
Maybe it doesn't get as many details across, sure, but
shorter writing can be more impactful than longer writing
in a lot of cases.

Giving your work constraints when you're not sure where to start, tie
one hand behind your back and see what you can do with
that. Either literally or figuratively, maybe you're only
working with black, white and one color. See what you can
do with that.

Also the less you have, the more focus there is on everything you do
have. Look at Yahoo!'s homepage, a million things. You
don't know where to look. Google's homepage. Search bar,
the end. That's the difference, the more things you have,
the less focus there is on each of those things.

You can't put emphasis on 20 things at once, you put emphasis on
nothing. The same is true for the color palette of course.
And critiquing your product, for those of you that are in
more of the start-up sense, I think nowadays, what everyone
wants is always changing in terms of what they want and in
terms of products. You've got your Web 2.0 and your Web 3.0
and all that, geolocation and whatever the new thing is.
But I figure it is always better to release a product that
does one thing super well than to do five things badly.

There's a poster over there on the way. What does it say? The longer
it takes to develop, the less likely it is to launch. I
love that thing. That's awesome. There's a guy we work with
who needs to take that to heart and we've been trying to
convince him for months. He won't launch the damn thing.

Audience member: What were you going to do if he launched?

Ross: Yeah, actually so quick back story. Brandon over here, Brandon
is going to punch me in the dick if I don't publish a book
by June, I think. We're calling it Dick which then raises
another level of weirdness but that aside. That's a
constraint that's put upon me that I have to live up to.

Brandon: I'm excited.

Ross: I have video proof that our friend Danny that works in our
office space which is space similar to this. He needed to
launch his app by February 15th or I was going to punch him
in the nuts and it worked. It really worked. But it's
easier to launch something the less things that are
involved with it right?

I mean, think about how many apps you use right now to try and do
everything? The Swiss army knife of the apps, those are a
mess. But think of the apps you have that does one thing.
your flashlight app, one thing, all it does is turn on the
light, works great, done.

Your Instagram, takes a photo, makes it look douchey, done. Twitter,
nice and simple. 140 characters, done. The simpler the app,
the more, I think that's where we're going, we're so
overloaded with stuff these days that one thing that does
it really well . . . I think you even get credit sometimes
for being minimalist when you just were being lazy.

There's so many times like we we've put an app that does this one
thing. That's so unique with how minimal they are. No, they
just didn't want to put in all those extra features. It
works. So whatever you're doing does it need to have all
those features? Think about that.

The last section I want to talk about real quick is crap that didn't
really fit anywhere else but I learned it from comics
anyway. Just lessons learned along the way. First of all,
art is exercise, or rather getting good at art is exercise.
Any creative skill, any skill is exercise. Exercise is a
great idea.

Everyone accepts if you job three times a week, you will get better
at jogging. No one questions this. Maybe people don't do
it, but they don't question it. Everyone accepts that. The
same is true for any other pursuit in your life.

If you just take that regimen that you know would work if you jogged
more, I know I do, and apply it to drawing or apply it to
coding or apply it to whatever skill you want to learn, you
get better at that thing, whatever it is.

This is the first ever comic of doing, sorry, questionable contact on
the left. This is the first ever one; this is a recent one
on the right. He never took an art class in between there.
He just did it everyday five days a week for I think ten
years and you can't help but get better at something if you
keep doing it. If nothing else, you will get mad at
yourself that you didn't get better at it and that might be
the only incentive you need to get better at the thing that
you're doing.

Jessica Hische did a project a few years ago called the Daily Drop
Cap illustrating a different first letter that's really
nice in an illuminated manuscript sort of thing, like a
nice big "A" at the beginning storybook story. She did that
everyday and got a lot of press for it.

Carolyn Sewell, did this with hand drawings and typography every
year, once a day every year. There's a whole campaign run
by a guy named Noah Scalin about making a thing everyday
for 365 days. He did a thing called the daily, Skull-A-Day
where he illustrated a skull a different way everyday for a

He got a lot of press doing it but also was able to turn that into an
idea that people would embrace that I know doing web comics
that's something that all web comic people know. If you do
it and you do it on a schedule, you get better at it. You
get more readers; everything will go better if you just
keep at it.

I made this poster very simple concept of it. I need to work harder
to be better at things. It came out of actually . .
.Jessica Hische is a really talented graphic designer but I
kind of hate her for it. She put out this really awesome
website for her wedding and I was just mad at it because it
was just so good. It is this creative shitstorm of just
like, "damn it that's so good why didn't I do that, damn it
I'm not doing anything good," and just wanting to just feel
like I'm doing better than I was doing because I saw
something that was better than anything I was doing that

I think that day I was changing everything in a document from a teal
to a lighter teal. Just the worse day for that. Our fiend
Jamie Noguchi has this very simple system, same idea: did
you do it? Doesn't matter.  Do it again. The 
"do it system". It works. It really works.

If you do this, you will get better at that thing. I don't care what
that thing is. If you want to learn to fly, keep trying,
you will get there. Whatever it is, just do it, you
will get there. Just do anything you decide you want to do,
keep doing it. You will get better at it, whatever it is.

The other thing I want to say is finally have a bag of tricks
designers there's always these download these 22 vector art
library archive things and [inaudible 00:54:48] call this a
swipe file, having this swipe file [inaudible 00:54:50]
Google literature of stuff you intend to draw a lot, have
reference for that and comedians keep joke files of all
their jokes they've written. Keep that stuff and keep it

This is a dingbats file me and my friend Amy put together. It's every
dingbats font we could find with every letter typed out in
it and then just converted it to outlines. We just made
this and anytime we get a new one, we just add it to this
one file because if it were in separate files we would
never use them.

One file, I tend to use this thing all the time because you need a
home icon, you need a mail icon, you need an arrow, all
those little times that you leave the design you're working
on and go makes those little things. I mean they make the
design really unique, don't get me wrong, but they slow
down your process of having documents like this that just
help you out.

Help you spend the time instead of working on these little pieces,
getting the big pieces done first so then when that's done
you can then spend that extra time then go back. Sure. Make
it custom, make it work, but sometimes these things can
make your life a lot easier.

Or this one right here, this is my comic's template that I make all
my system comics from is just this all the icons I've ever
created. Anytime I change a person's arm from this to this
and I didn't have it before, I've out them in this one
file. I do just want to point out this quick design
generals warning which is, these things are great I think
they're awesome, but I don't think any collecting, other
people's stuff doesn't make you a good designer. It just
makes you faster so then you can screw up quicker.

I think everyone screws up along the way while they're designing
something and good designers are just people that have
already screwed up more in the past. So they already know
that centering, it's not going to work and putting it in
[inaudible 00:56:41] is not going to work and putting it in
comic sans isn't going to work and putting green on red
isn't going to work.

So when they go to approach something they've already screwed up in
all those ways so then they tend to try the things that
think might actually might work. So the more things you
try, the faster you can get to all those things you haven't
tried, the faster you can then get to all the parts you
need to get to.

Finally, have a secret identity. Be Batman. That doesn't mean have
nipples on your costume or have a grappling hook, but if
you have a grappling hook, please lend me your grappling
hook. What it means is have other things that you do other
than work. Whatever your hobby is . . .I know Baltimore is
a surprisingly large craft town. Any crafters in here? Go
to craft fairs. There's a lot of cool craft fairs around
here and there's so much of that out there and whatever
your interest is with that other stuff, do it. Do a lot of

Somehow it makes you better. It makes you more well-rounded. I stay
up at night staying up really late making comics. This was
a comic about me staying up late making comics. That is how
meta it gets for me doing it.

Super Art Fight, this is a side project for me. I wish someone would
pay me full-time to do this. Unfortunately, that hasn't
quite happened yet, but I get to go on tour and have
moments where the audience is cheering me on while I eat a
burger. That's not actually a burger, that's called
McGangbang which is when you take an entire McChicken
sandwich and put it in between half a double quarter
pounder with cheese. And the crowds going nuts for it and
[inaudible 00:58:28]

Then Frank Cho who does Liberty Meadows, we had him do a show and he
drew a . . . that, me apparently. It's mostly, [inaudible
00:58:40] just for the record. Stuff like this can happen,
but what's really interesting about that is doing all this
other stuff . . . I'm just going to leave this up as long
as I can. Teachers used to tell me keep your work separate
from your hobbies. Don't tell the people on your portfolio
the site that you do photography. That age has ended.
Everyone wants you to do everything. And if you do things,
tell people that you do them.

Nowadays people want to hire you based on your personality so much.
I've seen talented people who don't get hired because less
talented people are just cool people. That's not a slight
on the talented people, that's a good thing for the cool
people. I am by no means the most talented designer I know,
but I beat out talented designers because I'm fun to work
with and I do cool stuff.

When I got hired to teach, I think a large part of why I got hired to
teach is I do all this stuff and I can talk about it and I
come kind of an interesting person so when they put me up
on the faculty page, I gave them this image from Super Art
Fight and they put that up on the faculty page so now
students had to see this when they found that my name was
on their class teach and probably saw a fair amount of this
which I only wonder about.

But I do think nowadays, having other projects only makes you just a
better, better at everything. Getting back to that closure,
you're mind tries to make connections, and by doing other
things, you will learn about your design methods, from your
craft methods and from your illustration methods, from your
Zen methods, all that stuff. It will come together a lot in
your head and you can have some really cool stuff come out
of that.

This guy named Austin Kleon put out a book "Steal Like An Artist"
which talks about a lot of this stuff and it talked about
the side projects and hobbies being important. It's also
just a really cool little book. So if you're ever in a
bookstore, it's probably near the front near the register
and you should check it out.

Finally, if you're interested in this stuff and you want to read more
about it because it doesn't all fit into a presentation,
"Understanding Comics" is totally awesome, but ,
Understanding Comics in references. These two books by Will
Eisner where he kind of studied this stuff so if you're
really interested, check those out. They're really great
and they're really interesting to read.

Even if you never draw a comic and never read a comic in your life,
get your information from places beyond just every design
blog. Get out there and learn what photographers are saying
about photography. There's definitely connections in there
for people. Anyway, I've been talking for too long so
thanks a lot guys.

[inaudible 01:01:29] talking. I'm sorry but yeah, you know comics are
there. Company sites there.

Sarah: Do you want to do Q&A?

Ross: Yeah, definitely.

You guys got any questions about anything. Everyone just raise your
hand. Everyone, everyone. Now some of you, just some of you
put your hands down. Okay, who has a question. It works
sometimes, you'd be amazed. Anything. Yes.

Audience member: Is this better than playing in front of 2,500?

Ross: Is this better than playing in front of 2,500 people? Super Art
Fight, our biggest show ever was playing 2,500 nerds in
Connecticut and oh man. I'm going to have to . . . it's a
tough call, but this audience I think will take more from
this hopefully than 2,500 people who might go out and buy a
cheeseburger or something, which happened actually after
that show with the burgers. Apparently the McDonald's
nearby had a lot of people come in and try and order the
McGangbang and I felt a little bad about it. They thought
it was on the menu. Kids are stupid. Ironically enough you
can actually Google the phrase super art fight gangbang and
someone wrote about this. Don't Google that for other
reasons. But someone wrote a blog post all about . . .it
actually comes up.

Anything, comics, design, life, universe? Yes.

Audience member: So how exactly does Super Art Fight work?

Ross: Okay. My co-host from the audience [inaudible 01:03:14]. Okay.
Back there, that's backstage to the [autumn bar] so that's
not really helpful. This is about what it tends to look
like when it's all said and done. So you have all these
artists. What we do is you have two teams of artists on
either side of the canvas and they each have a starting
topic and they get to choose their starting topic. They
have 25 minutes to draw all over the canvas, so it could be
they draw on the opposite side of the canvas, or they could
be drawn right on top of each other.

You see here, this is part of one Super Art fight canvas. I think one
artist drew the top bit. For example, this over here, one
artist drew this and the other artist came back in and drew
this kind of rounded [inaudible 01:04:08] kind of
combative, but collaborative thing at the same time. Then
at the end of 25 minutes the audience gets to choose the
winner of the match based on applause, just sheer cheers,
so it becomes a bit amount the artistry, but also the
performance. That means that we have a lot of people who
tend to dress like this for shows. Some of our artists go
out just as themselves, but others go out in costumes.
Here's our ninja. The [Charm City Shinobi] as he's known.
Strictly business up there. [inaudible 01:04:44] printed in
the middle up there. [inaudible 01:04:45] up here. he goes
up on stage and wears that and draws in it, in that
costume. Don't know how. Don't know how she does it, but
she [inaudible 01:04:55]

Then we have about three, maybe four bouts depending on the venue and
Marty and I do play by play. We basically stand on either
side of the stage and fill in the audience and tell them
what's going on. We are kind of the John Madden and
[Somerall] kind or [Casey McCall] and [Dan Rydell] that
keep things moving and grooving. So it's silly, it's
improv, it takes a lot of talent to do it and it's
something to see. March 30th at Ottobar. It's
going to be a good show.

Audience member: One more question. I was going to ask how often does
your work with the design company interact with the comic strip?

Ross: A lot actually. All the comics that I write are ideas I've had
and all the ideas I've had are ideas I had when doing other
things. It's very rare I sit down, I need to write, okay I
need to write. Okay, now, all right here we go. What it
tends to b