Comic Books and eLearning: Lessons from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art”

Comic Books and eLearning Design Image

In an earlier blog post, we took a quick introductory look at some connections between comic books and eLearning.

And in that article, we promised to follow up with a second article that focuses on the classic book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. And we also promised that the second article would focus on some lessons from comic book design that we can apply to the design of eLearning other forms of learning.

This, my friend, is that second article.

Before we get going, let’s take a stop at the “credit where credit is due” department. Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a classic and is GREAT. If you’ve read it, you can vouch for me. Or maybe you’ve just heard of it and know it’s very well regarded.

If you haven’t heard of the book or read it yet, I highly recommend it. If you read it, you’ll learn a lot on a wide variety of topics. And even better, it’s written in the form of a comic book, so you’ll have a lot of fun while you’re reading, too.

But even though I suggest you check the book out and promise you’ll like it, you won’t have to read the book to begin drawing some lessons from it. Because that’s the whole point of this article. And of the comments section at the bottom, too–please share all your own ideas.

McCloud’s book is divided into nine chapters. We’ll present some of the key ideas from each chapter in the sections below.

Those chapters cover, in order:

  • A definition of comics (which can be applied to eLearning courses too)
  • The power of simplification
  • The viewer’s role in creating meaning
  • Time and representations of time
  • Making appeals to emotions
  • Combining words and visuals
  • The process of design and development
  • The use of color
  • A summary

Ready? Here we go.

Chapter 1: Setting the Record Straight

McCloud starts his book by trying to define what the word “comics” means.

He begins with an earlier definition put forth by Will Eisner (an earlier, also-famous writer of and about comics). That definition was “sequential art,” which means, of course, art in an order.

From there, McCloud tweaks and modifies that earlier definition over a series of pages, winding up with his own definition:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

That includes some big words used in pretty specific ways, so let’s break it down a bit. We’ll see how the definition applies to comic books but also how it can relate to eLearning as well.

Let’s begin by looking at the definition again, highlighting and then discussing different parts as we go.

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Juxtaposed means being placed adjacent or side-by-side. This applies to comic books, which often have several panes located side-by-side on a single page, and images on one page that are side-by-side with images on another page, with all those pages being presented in a series.

This also applies to eLearning courses, which typically have a series of images within one screen (so they’re juxtaposed by time) and a series of screens that the learner progresses through by clicking a NEXT button (again, so they’re juxtaposed in time). In addition, it’s becoming increasingly common for eLearning courses to present multiple images on screen at the same time, following the multiple-panes-on-one-page visual style of comic books.

Here’s an example of juxtaposed images in one screen from an eLearning course about papermaking processes:

papermaking graphic

Now let’s return to the definition and look at another part.

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

In comic books, McCloud is talking about pictures, written words, and other images within each pane.

Likewise, eLearning courses also often include pictures, written words, icons, symbols, and other images.

Here’s an example of a photorealistic animation from an eLearning course on tanker rollover.

tanker rollover image

And here’s another example of icons or symbols used in an safety eLearning course on Hazard Communication.

ghs-icons image

We’ll move on to the next part of the definition again.

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

The typical comic book is written to be read in a linear, start-to-finish. I think that’s changed a little bit with comic books presented in eBook format, but it’s still standard.

Likewise, eLearning courses are often presented in a sequence. In some cases, the learner progresses in a linear fashion. Of course, that’s changed a bit, as learning designers have become increasingly aware of the value of letting the learner choose his/her own navigation. But even given that, the idea of sequence is still important in eLearning as well. We sequence materials within a “chunk” to improve learning. And we sometimes sequence the chunks, while other times allowing employees to pick their own sequence and/or work through scenario-based branching exercises.

Here’s an example: a short video sample from an eLearning course that presents visuals in a deliberate sequence (this is from a mining safety course).

And now a new part of the definition:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Comics convey information–typically a story.

Likewise, eLearning courses are intended to convey information–typically to help employees develop a skill or comply with a business requirement or regulation.

Here’s a simple example of a screen from an eLearning course intended to explain a papermaking process–we see juxtaposed pictorial images intended to convey information.

Paperboard image

Yet another part of the definition:

We’ll move on to the next part of the definition again.

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Readers of comic books experience a wide variety of emotions and responses as they read, all of which can be grouped under the umbrella phrase “aesthetic response” here.

Likewise, learning experts have shown that training materials that elicit emotional and aesthetic responses prove more memorable.

Here’s an example from an eLearning course on arc flash and electrical safety.

combustible dust accident image

And now, the final part of the definition–and probably the most important one at that:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

McCloud’s definition acknowledges the importance of the comic book reader and of designing comics with the reader in mind. And as you’ll see in this article, McCloud thinks the comic book reader plays a large, arguably central, role in creating the meaning of a comic. And he thinks one of the strengths of a good comic is that it’s a medium that relies heavily on the reader to create the experience and meaning.

Likewise, eLearning experts also acknowledge the importance of designing learning materials for the reader and of creating learning activities that allow and call on the learner to be an active part of the learning experience.

Bonus reads: The following articles all touch on the central role of the learner in the learning experience and in creating meaning during training:

Review of the Definition and Lessons

So, to review, we know that McCloud’s definition of comics is: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” And we’ve now learned what all that means and seen how that can apply to eLearning courses as well.

Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics

The second chapter focuses on the two primary components of comic books–the written word and the images. And most especially, on the images.

One of the key points that McCloud makes here is that comics often, though not always, involve visuals that present the world in a simplified manner.

For example, he discusses at length simple visuals like the one below that comic book readers immediately interpret as a human face.

comic face image

McCloud believes that the simplicity of comic book visuals gives the visuals more power, largely because they call upon the comic book reader to help create the meaning. To get his point, look at that image above again, which I made in PowerPoint by creating three circles and a straight line. To borrow an argument McCloud makes, not only can you see that image and recognize it as a face, it’s almost impossible to not see a face in that image–despite how simple it is.

Now let’s consider eLearning. Training developers are also aware that simplifying visuals can lead to increased learning. And that’s true for at least two reasons: first, because visuals can be simplified to remove distractions, and because simplified images also actively involve in the learner’s brain in creating meaning (which makes the material more memorable).

For example, even though we at Convergence can make training materials with amazingly realistic and life-like representations of complex machinery (and often do), we also often use visuals that are very simplified by doing things like removing backgrounds.

Here’s an example of a simplified representation of a valve, from a manufacturing eLearning course on valves. Not the lack of a background and the simple representation of the fluid or gas running through the pipe and valve.

valve image

And here’s another example from an eLearning course on papermaking. Note the simplified representations of the machine and the paper being “doctored.”

papermaking doctor blade image

Just as McCloud notes that comic books often include simplified visuals (but sometimes include more complex visuals), he says the same basic thing about the writing in comic books. While it can be and sometimes is complex, it’s often simple and that simplicity brings a lot of power with it. We’re focusing on visuals in this blog post and so we won’t go into great detail about writing, but writing simply is one of the tips we provide in our Writing Training Materials post.

Bonus read: Our 25 Graphic Design Tips for eLearning includes an entire section on visual simplification.

Chapter 3: Blood in the Gutter

Before I get into the lessons from this chapter, let me explain that the word “gutter” is a technical term used to refer to the blank space between the boxes or panes within comic books.

McCloud believes a lot of the meaning comes from those blank spaces. As he puts it:

“And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics.”

Further, McCloud introduces another term to explain why gutters are magical: closure. McCloud defines closure as the:

“…phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”

By this, he means the process of looking at a series of visual images (and words) within panes on printed paper and giving life to, creating, and being absorbed into, a narrative.

Moreover, McCloud believes that comics, largely due to the way they present still visuals within panes to represent reality, are:

“A medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion.”

Or, to put that into more everyday-speak, when a reader is presented with a series of panes in a comic book, the reader willingly and knowingly works together with the comic book creator to create the experience by using closure to represent change, time, and motion where they don’t really exist. The reader brings them into existence.

This is easy enough to understand in comic books.

And it’s also easy enough to understand in eLearning. Consider the image below from an eLearning course on back injury prevention as a simple example (ignore that this is one image and not three images without “gutters” between them–this image still works on the same principle of closure).

proper lifting image

There’s no real change, passage of time, or motion in this image. To test that, look at it, look away for five seconds, and then look back. Go ahead, we’ll wait. See? Everything’s exactly the same. But when you look at this image, with its three different depictions of a man and a box, your mind collaborates with the graphic designer to fill in the gaps and to create change, the passage of time, and motion.

Let’s see how that works. The man bends down, grabs a box, and lifts it. All while doing so in a manner that protects his back. The box moves from the ground (which doesn’t exist either) to a spot about three feet higher. And this happens over several seconds, with the passage of time being represented by the movement of the eyes from left to right.

But you created all that. None of it really happened, and none of it is even directly represented in the image. And because you created it, there’s a greater chance that you’ll remember this and that you’ll follow safe lifting practices the next time you have to lift something.

This is very much in fitting with the theories about how people learn and create meaning through the active participation of their own brain. One of the keys of adult learning principles is to make learning an active learning experience. Presenting visual information this way in an eLearning course makes the learner an active participant in the learning process–in fact, it’s the learner that creates the learning experience.

Bonus read: Check Julie Dirksen’s book Design for How People Learn for more about how the learner creates the learning that happens on the job and during training.

Chapter 4: Time Frames

In the next chapter, McCloud focuses on issues related to time and the passage of time in comic books.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, much of which relates to using devices to simulate the passage of time.

And you can see how useful that is in eLearning, because we know that people can only hold information in their working memory for about 15 seconds, and after that, it’s either stored in long-term memory or it’s lost.

Bonus reading: Read more about how information “moves” through various phases of memory here and here.

For an example of the representation of time in an eLearning course, consider this image from an eLearning course on papermaking. The curved line and arrow, a simple visual convention used to represent motion through time, helps to explain the path of a sheet of paper through papermaking machinery.

Image representing passing of time

For another simple example of how an image can “compress” time this way, consider the image below from a course on railcar loading.

This simple visual treatment demonstrates what would take minutes to demonstrate in real life into only a few seconds. And that matters when people have such a limited amount of time during which they can remember information.

image representing sequences

Of course, eLearning courses occur in the form of videos, so they represent time as a video advances as well. In the example below, from an industrial course on palletizing, you can see a quick overview of the multiple steps of a packaging process illustrated in just a few seconds.

Animations like the one you just saw can also be used to represent time in slow-motion or speeded up. Check back in the future, we’ve got some examples of that and I’ll either pop those into this blog post here (once I scare them up) or write about them in a separate blog post.

Chapter 5: Living in Line

In this chapter, McCloud addresses the ability of comics to elicit an emotional response in readers.

By creating emotional responses, comics become more engaging, thrilling, and compelling.

Obviously, eLearning courses can benefit from some of that (being engaging, thrilling, and compelling). Plus there’s evidence that people remember things more if emotions are involved.

There are lots of ways that training materials can be designed to elicit emotional responses from learners. Some are pretty overt, others are more subtle. We’ve included a few examples below.

Here’s an image from a safety training eLearning course that uses the red-colored background to represent potential dangers and to elicit a subtle emotional response in the viewer.

image representing danger

This threatening image of a tornado from a course on Emergency Action Plans is enough to make the leaner feel a little and realize this could one day be real.

image of a tornado

This accident scene from a forklift safety course helps capture (and share) the emotions that can arise during a forklift accident.

image of a falling forklift

This image makes an unexpected and humorous use of the Jolly Roger to draw the viewer’s emotions and attention to a discussion of workplace safety.

jolly "wrencher" image

And this image uses a mix of fear and humor in workplace safety training.

Nip Point Image

Can you think of ways you’ve tried to create an emotional reaction in learners?

Bonus read: The book Made to Stick includes some good stuff on the use of emotions, including surprise, as well.

Chapter 6: Show and Tell

In the chapter called Show and Tell, McCloud takes a closer look at how comics blend both pictures and words to great effect.

The parallels are obvious here, because eLearning courses also use images and words. Check the short sample from an eLearning course about operating overhead cranes as an example.

To quote McCloud:

“In comics at its best, words and pictures are like partners in a dance and each one takes turns leading. When both partners try to lead, the competition can subvert the overall goals…though a little playful competition can sometimes product enjoyable results. But when these partners each know their roles–and support each other’s strengths–comics can match any of the art forms it draws so much of its strength from.” (Source: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud, p. 156)

He goes further to list and give examples of specific ways that comics can blend words and pictures together. We won’t go into these in detail here, but here’s a quick list (this list is drawn from Understanding Comics, pp. 153-155):

  • Picture-specific combinations: “words do little more than add a soundtrack to a visually told sequence.”
  • Due-specific combinations: “both words and pictures send essentially the same message.”
  • Additive combinations: “where words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa.”
  • Parallel combinations: in which “words and pictures seem to follow very different courses–without intersecting.”
  • Montage combinations: “where words are treated as integral parts of the picture.”
  • Interdependent combinations: “where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone.”

We invite you to read the book to give this more thought and see examples of each that McCloud has created.

This same concept–that words and pictures can be blended effectively–is true for eLearning courses, too. And it’s probably true that each of the six styles of picture/word combinations listed by McCloud (and shown directly above) can be used effectively at specific times within an eLearning course.

Probably the best place to start thinking about how to effectively blend words (both spoken and written on screen) and is to become familiar with the Dual-Coding Theory, Mayer’s Multimedia Principle, and Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning.

Briefly, the Dual-Coding Theory states that our brain processes information in the forms of words (spoken or written) and pictures through two separate, independent “processing channels.” (Please note this is not the right brain/left brain argument, and the two-colored drawing of a brain below is not intended to represent that idea.)

dual core brain image

Here’s how they explain this at the website we linked to a few paragraphs up:

“The theory assumes that cognition involves the activity of two qualitatively different mental codes, a verbal code specialized for dealing with language in all its forms and a nonverbal code specialized for dealing with nonlinguistic objects and events in the form of mental images. These coding systems are separate but interconnected so that they can operate independently, in parallel, or through their interconnections. The linguistic, or verbal, code dominates in some tasks, the nonverbal code dominates in others, and both systems are frequently used together.” (Source:

Taking the Dual-Coding Theory as a starting point, we can then move on to consider the main points of Mayer’s Multimedia Principle, which states:

“People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” (Source: Multimedia Learning, Richard E. Mayer, 2nd Edition, p 1)

So that’s short and sweet. People learn better when words and pictures are combined. Here’s another example, from a course on gears for industrial maintenance.

But that doesn’t mean you can combine words and pictures in just any way. Just as McCloud pointed out that there are different ways to combine words and pictures in comic books, and that those different combinations have different end results, and are used more or less effectively be considering the intended final result, the same is true in eLearning. You can combine words and pictures poorly, and create eLearning courses that don’t add to learning or even decrease learning. Or you can combine words and pictures effectively, and create eLearning courses that increase learning.

With this in mind, we can take some important first steps by understanding Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. It states:

  • We process information through two separate channels (auditory and visual)–we covered this already in discussing the dual-coding theory
  • There’s a limi

    Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
    Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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