What learning designers can learn from minimalist comic design

Imagine a comic book with no pictures… Learning designer and comics writer Daniel Whiston looks at how you can strip back content to create a more engaging narrative and shares his 3 top tips.

learning design comic

People do things because they can. Learning designers use visual media as much as possible because users find it “engaging” and “immersive.” Don’t they? But what if it just adds visual noise and camouflages a lack of narrative focus?

One of the phrases every learning designer has probably heard a million times is “Don’t just say something’s interesting – make it interesting!” But doing that is hard, so often it’s easier to just make something look visually appealing and hope that learners will absorb dull, plodding content anyway.

The same challenge applies to entertainment media (hands up everyone who’s seen a Hollywood blockbuster that looks great but is totally empty).

Creating a visual experience, without any pictures

The classic example above comes from the eighties superhero comic Alpha Flight, featuring a polar bear fighting a white furry monster in the middle of a snowstorm. You can’t see the occupant of the panel on the right – but whatever it is, it probably isn’t too happy about what’s happening to it

Inspired by this, I wanted to see if I could write my own narrative that was so clear, compelling and engaging that it would still work in a visually-driven medium (comics) without any visuals (pictures). And, to make it even more difficult, no dialogue!

The only tools I had at my disposal were the panels themselves (in terms of their shape and sequencing on the page) and nonverbal sound effects of the (BAM! POW!) variety.

Preview: My process for developing the narrative

The story I’m working on features an unseen small furry animal exploring a cave at night with a lot of onomatopoeic encounters along the way. Titled “A Dark and Noisy Night,” it will be published in Sliced Quarterly #10 around May 2018.

None of the pages have been designed yet (usually I’d say ‘drawn,’ but clearly that term doesn’t apply here). But to give you an idea of how the concept might look on the page, here’s an extract from the script for Page 4 of the story (and before any visual designers out there look at this and have a heart attack, I must stress that I am 100% a writer – I can’t even draw stick men – so this is purely to give the designer something to react against).

In terms of decoding it, the italics at the top give the designer a “bird’s eye view” of the narrative flow for the page; the “sketch” shows how the panels and table at the bottom *could* be laid out.

‘A bird’s eye view’ of the narrative flow for the page – for the designer:

Page 4: The Smaller Animal erupts from the water, and scrabbles back onto dry land. It shakes off the water, then heads off into the cave again, where it picks up the scent of the food stash it was tempted by in the beginning. Again, I was thinking of a “serpentine/exploratory” curve for 4-7.

How the panels *could* be laid out:


Mapping SFX to panels:


3 tips for learning designers who want to declutter their design

1. Strip down the learning narrative to the absolute barebones before you build it up again.

What. Is. The. Skeleton. Of. What. You. Are. Telling. People?

2. Base content chunks around hooks, jeopardy points and mini-cliffhangers to drive progression along a learning journey.

People talk about “page-turning” mystery novels. They don’t talk about “next-button-clicking” learning content. But why shouldn’t a narrative learning experience be compelling?

3. Keep things short.

Bloated content is a key factor behind the failure of a lot of learning content to sustain the engagement of its learners. So, focus on the absolute essentials. Remember: You’re spending an “attention budget when you communicate with an audience. And the budget for online learning is often pretty low.

So, imagine a 5-minute text-only piece of microlearning so compelling learners will lose themselves in it, happily clicking Next until they reach the end. Why not give it a go, and see how successful you can make it? Creativity within constraints often leads to innovation – so why not add as many limits as possible, and see what you come up with?

Daniel Whiston is a freelance learning designer, and writer of comics like Neroy Sphinx.

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