How to commission comic art


comics collage

Snippets from comics by xkcd, Darryl Cunningham, Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Dan E. Burr.

I’ve drawn comics for over twenty years. With delight I’ve noticed the rise in demand for comics for marketing and communications in recent years. And why not! Our world is getting increasingly visual and increasingly complex and comics can tame complexity visually. Perfect.

But how should you commission comics? What questions should you ask? Here are couple of suggestions.

Key questions to ask:

  • Is a comic right for the topic?
    Comics come to their own when you have to explain abstract or complex topics that are not easy to explain in words (a lot of financial information falls in this category). They are also good for topics that tend to be emotionally difficult, even taboo. Comics often help make challenging topics more approachable. However, in the English-speaking world comics still carry a bit of a stigma for being children’s art which tends to limit people’s understanding of what the format is capable of. Check out Economix comic(for economics), xkcd (maths and science) , Marc-Antoine Mathieu (philosophy, existentialism – read about his project he did for the Louvre), or Darryl Cunningham’s comics (economics, mental health, science) to get a wider view of what’s possible (especially if superhero comics are the first type of comics that come to your mind when thinking about the format).
  • Is a comic right for my audience?
    While I do think professional communications people are often unnecessarily conservative when it comes to comics, sometimes the medium is not be right for a particular audience or for the message you are trying to convey. If in doubt, you might want to do some testing for example by posting something for a test audience (maybe do an A/B split test) and see how they react (9 out of 10 the reaction is positive – if the content is good).
  • Is comic right for our brand?
    One problem that I’ve found when working with bigger clients is that there is no mention of comics or even illustration in their brandguidelines. This means that the brand police/guardian might look at your comics project proposal and declare that the project is off brand. The trick in a situation like this is to look at the company brand from a wider perspective: what is your brand about? What are your values and messages? Does the comicreflect those messages and values? If so, you can argue that the visual guidelines are there to serve the brand, not vice versa.If you work in marketing you might want to bring up the topic of content marketing. Content marketing has given marketers more leeway when producing visual content.

    Personally I’ve found that the people who tend to object to using comics are the middle managers (and the visual brand people). Senior executives and frontline staff tend to be very positive about the format. If you can get a senior executive endorse the format you can hopefully bypass the brand police/guardian.

  • Are you writing the story or will you hire someone to write it for you?
    There are comics artists who are both writers and artists, but it might be easier to find an illustrator/comics artist who will work from a script (me and my colleagues like to do both, however). Make sure you involve the artist from early on  - otherwise you might not get enough visual think to go with your ink.
  • Will you use real people as characters?
    Make sure the  writer can adapt real life events into stories and the artist can actually draw characters that resemble the people they are trying to depict. Seriously, there are a lot of artists out there who can’t draw likeness.
  • Long story or a short comic strip? One-off or a series?
    If you need to catch people’s attention consider using a comic strip instead of a story that spans several pages. Short and snappy also tends to work better online, longer stories are better for printed publications. Note that some comic artists specialise in comic strips and some artists are experts in creating longer stories. Comic strips often work as a series so have a think what your needs are. Do you need a constant stream of content or is a one-off comic enough?
  • What kind of style should you use?
    If you are concerned about credibility realistic style might be better than cartoony style. Also have a think about the visual brand. Should you use brand colours and stylistic elements in the comic? Also, do you necessarily need to use the classic comic format – maybe your comic would work better as a PowerPoint presentation on Slideshare? Just because they are called comics doesn’t mean they have to appear on paper, or even have panels.
  • Do you know how the comics artist works?
    Most professional artists create concepts of which you choose one for further development. If you change your mind completely after the concept stage you might end up paying extra. So make sure you put some thought into the concept development phase.
  • Where to find a comics artist? 
    You can try the Professional Cartoonists Association, the Cartoon Movement website or illustration agencies. Or you can contact us, of course.
  • What kind of artists should I look for?
    If you have a complex, abstract topic look for artists that have a track record for drawing abstract concepts (cartoonists generally tend to be better at this than comics artists who draw superhero style comics). Or maybe you have a specific style in mind?  You might also want to ask whether the artist works digitally or not. Artists who work digitally are usually faster and can make changes with least hassle.

You might also want to check out the Pro Cartoonists’ tips for commissioning cartoons and Radix Communications e-book on how to use comics in B2B marketing (note: they draw more on the superhero comics production process while I come from the indie scene which is more focused on conveying ideas).

- Virpi

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Posted in Comics, Tips, Visual content marketing

What does a visual scribe do? – Infographic

Virpi OinonenThis is a narrative infographic by my colleague Richy K. Chandler. We both offer visual recording/sketchnoting services here at Business illustrator. This is Richy’s visual explanation of what a visual scribe can do.. (If you want an explanation of the terminology – check out this post on the difference between graphic recording, graphic facilitation and sketchnoting). -Virpi What does a visual scribe do - narrative infographicPS. We can turn visual notes from events into narrative infographics that you  can share online after the event (content marketing, anyone?).

Posted in Graphic recording, Infographics, Sketchnotes

One core message + visual metaphor = effective communication campaign

Virpi OinonenDuring my career as an online producer for Greenpeace and other nonprofits I learnt a very important lesson. That has served me well in my later communications jobs and in my current job as a cartoonist/visual explainer. Here’s the lesson: Find the core message and visualise it.

There can be only one… (core message)

one message one visual metaphor

Often other people in the organisation (experts and senior managers) came to me with a request to add about 7 “equally important” points in the content item I was producing (PowerPoint presentation, slideshow, video, infographic or animation). And I would have to stand firm and say: No. Only one core message per content item. If you have to fight for your audience’s attention (and let’s face it: in most cases your message has to compete with about 10 different things that take up your audience member’s mental processing capacity), you do not want to burden them with more than one key message. But what do you do when experts or senior managers in your organisation insist on getting seven “equally important” points in the presentation or video? Try these arguments:

  • we can always offer a link to more information for those who want to know more (white paper, report, strategy document, web page etc)
  • we can always add more complexity to the core message in future messages (we can build on the foundation of the core message)
  •  if we lose the audience with our complex messaging, they are less likely to pay attention to our content in the future (burned once, twice shy, as they say)

And then find a visual metaphor that sums up the core message

Since most of the topics I had to communicate were abstract concepts (environmental and economic implications for example) I had to figure out a way to somehow distill the essence of the message into a visual. There’s nothing like a visual that makes the abstract concept more concrete – and real – in your audience’s mind. If using video or photos you are obviously constrained by real life constraints. Even if it would be possible to explain the consequences of a new law affecting charity donations it would have required a lot of time and money to produce a video would hammer home the main point. Not so with drawn visuals like narrative infographics or cartoons! I started doodling visual concepts in a sketchbook (or whatever piece of paper I could find) to see whether I could come up with something that would capture the essence of the core message. I later realised that what I had been doing was basically cartooning. Cartooning is all about finding the core of the issue. And it’s about using visual metaphors: explaining a concept with something that is unrelated to the concept that enables that lightbulb moment to take place in your audience’s brains. You obviously don’t have to become a visual artist to be able to use metaphors: speechwriters, advertisers and other communications professionals use them all the time. So, to recap: only one point + visual metaphor = powerful message that people will remember – Virpi

PS. “Learn to think like a cartoonist” workshop in Brighton

If you’re interested in sharpening your communications skills by stealing some of cartoonists’ tricks of the trade then you might be interested in a Cartooning for Communicators workshop by a professional speechwriter and cartoonist Martin Shovel. The workshop is in Brighton on 11 July and is definitely worth the trip if you’re based in the UK. I interviewed Martin for my blog about a year ago – do check out the post as it’s full of interesting insights about the

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Posted in Internal marketing, Tips

Science needs more comics artists – interview with the creators of Neurocomic

Neurocomic brain -

Panel from Neurocomic

Virpi OinonenEvery time I see somebody explaining scientific concepts in an engaging way I feel like doing a little dance. So when I came across the graphic novel Neurocomic I did a proper 70s disco dance routine. Neurocomic explains neuroscience, or brain science, through an engaging story and clever visual metaphors. I interviewed the creators Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros about the work process and asked them for tips on how to communicate complex concepts with comics.

Matteo and Hana - creators of Neurocomic

Matteo Farinella (the artist) and Hana Ros (the scientist)

Virpi: How did you end up explaining neuroscience through a graphic novel? Did you consider any other formats (animation, video, etc) and if so, why did you choose the graphic novel?

Matteo: Even if I was doing a PhD in neuroscience I have always been drawing and writing comics, so for me it was an obvious choice. However, I think comics are actually one of the best formats to explain scientific subjects. Not only because they combine words and pictures, but also because they allow you to play with the page layouts in order to visualize logical connections and other complex ideas which would be difficult to explain into words or moving images.

Hana: What I love about comics is that you can really spend as much time as you like/need on certain parts. The dwell time is up to the reader to decide, and for me, I like to hover on some images/text for longer than others, I like to pay attention to detail (for example, the fingernails on a character’s hand, the piece of grass at the bottom left hand corner, or the light from a lampshade) – which together with the ability to go backwards and forwards and that it will never escape – that is what I love about the format of comics. They are not only to be enjoyed for their narrative, but they are there to be visually savoured. Also – I did a Masters degree in film, and I have always been interested in animation, so I’m secretly hoping one day Neurocomic will become an animated film.

Virpi: Did you encounter any resistance for the project? Was it easy to get funding for it?

Matteo: To be honest I am still amazed by how much support we had for this project. A few years ago the idea of combining comics and science was little more than a dream for me and when Hana suggested to apply for a Wellcome Trust People Award I would have never expected to receive any funding. Instead the Wellcome has been incredibly generous and supportive and later also Nobrow – our publisher – invested a lot in it and they have done an amazing job at promoting and distributing the book. I think it couldn’t have been any better.

Hana: Getting funding is never ‘easy’ – writing a lengthy application for our project was challenging but it really helped to crystallise our ideas at the start, which was hugely important at that stage, so we could formulate a clear plan of what our intentions were and where we were heading. We feel very fortunate that the Wellcome Trust supported us at this early stage – having their affirmation that it was a good idea to mix neuroscience and comics was critical; I don’t think we would have achieved our goal without the Wellcome Trust, and we are extremely grateful for their continuing support. Nobrow have also been great every step of the way, helping as much as they can. Im now running out of ways of saying how we are grateful for everyone’s support – but honestly – I personally feel very lucky to have had them backing our project. (I’m glad I’m not giving a speech at the Oscars, or someone would be trying to get me off the stage now…)

Neurocomic scientist -

Virpi: How did you develop the story? Was it a collaborative process?

Matteo: I had some of the settings and characters in mind since the beginning so I wrote a short script and storyboard to discuss with Hana. Then she suggested changes and new characters and we went back and forth like this a few times, before I started drawing the originals. Some parts were relatively easy to agree and some others (especially the more scientific parts) were more of a compromise, but overall I really enjoyed the collaboration. Drawing comics can be a very solitary process and sometime it is easy to lose perspective, I think it is incredibly useful to have someone to work with, who can tell you honestly things like “this part is boring”, “this picture is not clear” or “let’s do this instead”. Finally the art director of Nobrow had only a few minor edits.

Hana: Hahaha! It’s funny to read Matteo’s answer – I never thought I was being so critical. I’d like to think that it was purely a zen-like, harmonious collaborative process. Although, Matteo knows me too well by now - that I’m a very honest person, even with my opinions (but hey, we are still friends!) I think we are actually very different and I think it helps to work together on a project like this – we bring different things to the table. Luckily for me (and everyone else), I let Matteo do all the drawing…

Virpi: How did you collaborated in practice? 

Matteo: At the time we were working in the same laboratory which made things easier, it was very much an ongoing conversation. Then of course we had a few (more or less) official meetings where we would sit down and go through the comic page by page. However, it was probably all much more informal and improvised than it sounds!

Hana: I think many of our conversations happened over a coffee, dinner or most likely – at the pub. I think an informal setting is more conducive to open and honest discussions, which are needed for a creative project like this (plus it helps being friends).

Virpi: You use visual metaphors to explain scientific concepts. Can you explain why you chose to use visual metaphors instead of more “realistic” visualisations?

Matteo: If we just wanted a narrating voice explaining scientific diagrams we could have done a documentary or a textbook and there are already many great examples of these. The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to draw the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged, instead of being treated as passive recipients for information. I also think that visual metaphors can be much more powerful than accurate descriptions.

Hana: I agree with what Matteo says – but just to add – it also allowed us to create a more fantastical world and a fun story, which was more personally rewarding than writing a dry descriptive book with little or no narrative.

“The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to drawn the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged”.

Virpi: What is your favourite visual metaphor in the book and why?

Matteo: Mine is definitely the metaphor of neurons as trees. It is not original at all, it was actually introduced by the father of neuroscience Ramon y Cajal more than 100 years ago, but I like how it shaped the scientific language itself. Also – from a very selfish perspective – it is very fun to draw, I never tired of inventing intricate neuronal forests!

Hana: Ah.. Matteo stole my answer… I like the trees too – I spend most of my days in the lab looking at neurons with a microscope and when I take my dogs out for a walk I still find myself looking at trees and thinking they look just like neurons. It never fails to amaze me.

Virpi: Matteo, you mention in the intro video that you used “little lies to tell bigger truths, to make the bigger concept clearer”. Subjecting scientific concepts for a visual storytelling treatment means that you need to make some compromises. Do you have any advice on how to avoid simplifying too much?

Matteo: Yes, mostly you need to leave out a lot of details. Basically for any statement you can make there are some exception or even an alternative theory, especially in a complex subject like neuroscience. You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows, the reader would get completely lost with a “but” in every page. We considered adding some notes but we decided to not break the spell of the story in the end. For me a partial solution was to represent the scientists as very human and somehow unreliable characters. Some people tend to think of science as a linear faultless path to knowledge but it is important to remember that it is made my by people with their own interests and personal opinions. We should always think critically about what we read and look for more independent information.

Hana: It’s a fine balance to have the story flow and to convey information. There are clear compromises, but I think its unrealistic for people to assume we would be able to explain neuroscience in its entirety in a comic book. Its more like a taster – to get people interested in the subject matter, and if they want to explore neuroscience further, then there is plenty of information out there. Making neuroscience accessible to everyone was key for us, and giving people a way into it (a sort of foot in the door) that isn’t daunting (and is approachable) is more important to us than just relaying pure information.

“You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows”.

Virpi: What did you enjoy most about the project?

Matteo: For me it was a very important project, it made me realize that my drawings are not just a funny hobby but they can actually be combined with my passion for science and maybe create something useful.

Hana: As cheesy as it sounds – I think seeing people’s enjoyment of it – that feeling is so rewarding, and completely unexpected.

Virpi: What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Matteo: I think the biggest challenge was probably to conclude the project. When dealing with such huge topic like the brain it is very difficult to say “OK, this is enough, we can stop here”. There is always more than you can add and parts that you think you can remake better. Luckily we had some external deadlines with the Wellcome Trust and with Nobrow so we had to move on. Some people said the book is a bit too short but I can live with that, the most important for me is to be happy with what is there.

Hana: I skipped this question, and had to come back to it, it’s a tough one, but after some soul-searching, I finally have an answer: I think working with another person (on anything) is always challenging. In a collaboration, you cannot just make decisions alone, and everything needs to be jointly approved. Sometimes there is a fine line in compromise, and that can be difficult at times. The way to overcome it is to have good communication, honesty and trust, which I have learned during this project. It’s tricky, but ultimately the rewards are greater too. I have definitely preferred doing this project with Matteo than doing it alone. But it does need discipline and respect for one another – as it’s often too easy to find things to disagree on. Luckily we are still cool with each other (I hope I haven’t jinxed it now…)

Virpi: Do you think science, and complex topics in general, require that the illustrator/comics artist understands and is interested in the topic?

Matteo: I think ‘pure’ collaborations between artists and scientists are possible but they definitely require a lot of work and understanding on both sides. Not only for the illustrator in the subject she/he is trying to represent but also understanding of the creative process by the scientist. I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost, locked in a language that not many people can understand.

Hana: Some level of understanding obviously helps, but I think the main ingredient that is needed is passion/interest in the topic.

“I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost”.

Virpi: Have you read any other comics on scientific topics? Do you think the genre of the science comic is on the rise?

Matteo: Yes, now that I start to pay more attention I am discovering many cartoonists working on scientific subjects. There is even an international conference called Graphic Medicine which I attended last year. Some books like Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham and Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures by Goodwin and Burr are also selling quite well so I really hope the genre is on the rise.

Hana: I only came across them after we had already finished Neurocomic, so it was interesting to see a different style (for example, Cunningham uses photographs in his book). I love comics more than other books so I hope the genre is on the rise – I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics, so if anyone is reading this who has the knowledge to do one, please get in touch!

“I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics”.

Virpi: What advice would you give to scientists and others who want to communicate complex concepts with comics?

Matteo: I am not sure if I feel in the position to give anyone advice since I am just starting myself… I would just express them all my support. I know it is hard work and very easily criticised by our colleagues, but I also think it is extremely important and could be very rewarding at times. Someone should just go ahead and try, always being faithful to the facts but without worrying too much either.

Hana: Go for it! There is no right or wrong way of doing it, we are all working it out as we go along. But the main thing to have is passion for the subject and the medium/format you choose, otherwise if you don’t enjoy ‘the making of it’ then it will show. I think having fun and doing a project you love is the most important thing; as with many things in life, doing something for yourself (and staying true to yourself) is the path to happiness.

You can follow Matteo and Hana on Twitter.

- Virpi

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Posted in Comics

Graphic recording vs event sketchnoting – which service to use to illustrate an event?

Graphic recording services are very popular these days. You might have been to an event where an illustrator  draws what’s been said on a giant sheet of paper or a whiteboard. There’s something about drawings that help people see the topic or a problem in a different light. The visuals literally help people to get on the same page which is a really good starting point when you’re discussing new strategy initiatives for example.

(Note: Sometimes people hire illustrators to facilitate a problem solving exercise. If the illustrator actively steers the discussion it’s called graphic facilitation, not graphic recording).

However, sometimes I go to events where an illustrator is some sort of curious sideshow. People might, or might not, be paying attention to what the illustrator is doing. The visuals are a “nice to have”, but are not used as part of a process. Which raises the question: why couldn’t the illustrator just use a sketchbook? Why does the illustrator need to work on a giant sheet of paper when she could do a bit more thinking by taking sketchnotes.

How about sketchnotes instead?

Sketchnoting: The Art of Visual Note-taking from Matthew Magain

Sketchnoting is similar to graphic recording except that the illustrator uses a notebook (or an iPad or whatever tool they feel comfortable with). So unlike visual scribing it’s not a public performance. This means the illustrator can focus more on the think, than the ink. After the event some illustrators edit the drawings in Photoshop or some other image editing programme so that they can turn the visuals into a more coherent narrative (this is the work process I use since I usually aim to give my visuals an afterlife on the interweb).

This means that sketchnotes can serve a dual function:

  1. as a visual summary for the participants on what was discussed and what the key themes were
  2. as a marketing tool: people who participated in the event will want to share content like this online (my sketchnote from the tech conference, see below, spread organically because it sums up a key theme).

Visuals from a graphic recording session don’t spread the same way because they are “messier” and are not instantly readable to people who weren’t at the event in person. Also, since they are drawn on a large surface the illustrator needs to take a photo of the picture and use Photoshop or similar which often lowers the image quality.

People have been taking sketchnotes forever, but only now are they being acknowledged as a legitimate way of recording an event or making sense of something (the exception are user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers who have been using these visual techniques as part of their work processes). There’s even a site that celebrates sketchnotes (although most of the sketchnotes on the site are for private use and not commissioned pieces).

Storytelling workshop sketchnotes by

The beginning of a sketchnote I did at a storytelling workshop.

In summary:


  • help participants to remember and understand the key themes from an event
  • are marketing content after the event (especially good because participants love to share sketchnotes online)

Graphic recording:

  • helps smaller groups of people to discuss and solve problems (however, if the illustrator takes and active role in steering the meeting it’s graphic facilitation)
  • help participants to remember and understand the key themes from an event
  • are entertainment (it can be fun to see people draw in public!)

Tip:  If you want to use sketchnotes online after the event make sure you mention this to the artist before you hire him/her. Not all artists want to spend time editing their drawings after the event. For online use I recommend the long vertical (infographic format) and slideshows on Slideshare (one image/concept per slide). One page mind map style visuals don’t work that well online but this tends to be the format most sketchnotes are in illustrators’ notebooks.

My (edited) sketchnotes from a tech conference

I went to a Microsoft conference in March and attended many, many talks (mainly about social software and the transition into more collaborative, less hierarchical organisations). I had a notebook where I scribbled down quotes and visual ideas. After the event I redrew the sketches in Photoshop (mainly because my Wacom Inkling wasn’t working properly), arranged them vertically on Photoshop, went online to check couple of quotes (all the talks were online) and then uploaded the image on Thinglink where I added interactive links to further resources. So it’s not just taking notes at events (although I’ve done that too), but editing the visuals after the event and adding background information, if need be. They are drawings with an editorial twist.


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Posted in Graphic recording, Sketchnotes, Visual content marketing

Graphics + storytelling = effective PowerPoint presentation

Virpi OinonenCouple of months ago I was approached by someone from a major technology firm with an interesting – and terrifying – question. He asked if I could do a 75 minute presentation at a technology conference in the US. After oohing and aahing for about a month I finally said yes.

I was worried about three things:

  1. 75 minutes is a looong time to keep people interested and engaged
  2. There would be over 200 other presenters in this 10 000 attendee conference – how will I stand out?
  3. I’ve never done public speaking and they told me there would be approximately 500 people attending my session… (a bit scary)

So I decided to do two things that I know from experience to work well together:

  • I built the presentation around a story – I know a story format will be more memorable than a lecture
  • I decided to use cartoons (lots of cartoons..) and turn it into an illustrated talk (so even if my talk would suck, at least the audience has something interesting to look at)

And guess what, the presentation went pretty well!

You can watch the entire talk here.

People came to me after the presentation and said it was the best presentation they had seen so far (and this was day three of the conference). A couple of people who reviewed the talks ranked my talk in the top five – including the head of research of a major technology research firm (for me a big compliment). People approached me after the conference to ask more questions and the video recording has been viewed almost 5000 times (I haven’t dared to watch it myself, though..).

How you can do the same

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a public speaking star to be able to do a memorable presentation that will get people talking about you, and your firm/product/initiative. If I can do it, you can do it.

Two key things for making your presentation stand out:

  • Tell a story. Even if everybody else would be following a lecture format. (We are neurologically hardwired to like, trust and learn from stories).
  • Use cartoons or other consistent and memorable visuals that add another dimension to your talk. I prefer cartoons because I can visualise abstract concepts as well as add a bit of humour.

How to build a story

The process of building a story is relatively simple (but that doesn’t mean it’s easy!)

  1. First, you have to determine the one idea that you want your audience to remember. This main idea will be at the heart of the conflict and the climax. Mine was: you can drive enterprise social from the bottom up if you recruit allies and think strategically.
  1. Find a story that has a conflict that is based on your key idea (if you don’t have a story, ask your colleagues, clients or crowdsource your social networks).

  2. Make sure the story has:

    -A beginning: Set the scene and introduce the Problem
    -A middle: Conflict (the Problem becomes a real issue)
    -An end: Conflict (Problem) gets solved (or alternatively you gain an insight)

  1. Use the story as a structure where you hang your insights, research evidence and anecdotes – it’s narrative glue for all the random bits and pieces of information you have in your head or notebook! For example: I talked about a declining participation rate in our enterprise social network, and then cited evidence from a research firm that this is actually really common. Then I continued my story.

Do not underestimate the time that goes into this phase. I spent quite a long time in an almost catatonic post-it note editing mode (my flatmate thought I was re-enacting a crime scene investigation in the hall). I got a long piece of paper and divided it into six sections (the basic structure of the talk) and then kept adding and removing ideas (anecdotes and evidence) until I was more or less happy with it. After that I started to think about the cartoons.

 Working on my talk for the Microsoft SharePoint conference

Remember: the art of storytelling is about delayed gratification

When you follow the storytelling format you hold people’s attention by NOT telling them everything right away. When you follow a lecture format you do the opposite: you tell them what you’re going to tell them (bullet points!) and then go through those bullet points in detail. It can feel counterintuitive to “withhold information” to increase anticipation when you are used to the lecture format. But believe me, storytelling is a much more effective format for delivering information.

Cartoons – the secret weapon in a presenter’s toolkit

Cartoons are deceptively simple, but pack a punch. The power of the cartoon is that it can explain something that is abstract (it can be difficult to take a photo of the concept return of investment, but it can be drawn). There is also something inherently unthreatening about a cartoon that helps to get the audience on your side. I like to think that they make you a bit more human and approachable in a way that slick graphics can’t. They also go well together with another powerful presentation element: admitting failure (nothing is more powerful than admitting that you failed – and then showing what you did to address the failure). A cartoon can add a lighter, humorous layer to the failure.

I had 40 cartoons in my presentation and very little text. The cartoons also acted as cues so I knew what I was going to say next. Some cartoons were simply variations of the same cartoon so it didn’t actually take that long to create them. I reused quite a few of my old cartoons about the same topic so I didn’t have to actually create too many new cartoons. (I’ve built my cartoon image bank over the last year or so, so I have where to choose from).

Keep the visuals consistent!

You’ve probably seen lots of presentations that have no visual consistency: photos, graphs, cartoons and other elements become a visual hotchpotch that makes your presentation look unprofessional. Try to find at least three good visuals that are consistent rather than try to find 20 poor graphics.

Tips: If you use photos you can make them look consistent by making them black and white (there are lots of free online tools that you can use, including this one). If you use cartoons you can use just one spot colour to add a bit of consistency (and align them more closely with your visual brand).

I created consistency by creating cartoons in the same style and by using one colour (blue) in both copy and the cartoons.

Where to find cartoons and other visuals

This can be tricky. You might find one cartoon or photo that you think is perfect, but try to find 20 good cartoons and photos that illustrate all your points – not so easy. If you want to create your presentation yourself here are couple of ideas to get you started:

  • If you talk about abstract ideas decide on a visual metaphor/theme (choose something concrete) and search for photos or illustrations that fit into this metaphor or theme. For example: building a house, seafaring, exploration, sports.

  • Stock photos can make your presentation look a bit generic and bland (or worse).

  • Want free pictures? You can search copyright free photos on Wikimedia commons and Flickr Creative Commons search and elsewhere that fit your theme (remember to search for concrete terms rather than concepts). This list of public domain photo resources might come in handy. For example a lot of US Government agencies have copyright free images that you are free to use in your presentation. You can get an idea what’s available courtesy of the US Government by using this handy search engine.

  • Hire a cartoonist/illustrator (cartoonists can usually come up with clever concepts as their job is to do the “think as well as the ink”. Look for people with a simple style (the more detailed an illustration the longer it takes to produce) and people who are used to drawing abstract concepts (We here at Business illustrator are obviously happy to help as this is our speciality).

Have you used a story structure and/or cartoons in your presentation? (Share a link!) How did it go?


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Who said doodling was bad? These illustrated lecture notes went viral

Virpi OinonenLive drawing, or graphic recording, at events is becoming increasingly popular. But it’s nothing new. Most of us here at Business Illustrator are incorrigible meeting doodlers. Aino Sutinen, a Finnish comics artist and Business Illustrator freelancer, attended a lecture for journalists on online research and – naturally – started doodling. She then posted her “infocomic” online (with the lecturer’s permission) and lo and behold it went semi-viral. Imagine the same thing happening to written notes on the same topic…

Better Web Research-for journalists info comic_Business_Illustrator

You can check out Aino’s illustrations and comics on her website (mostly in Finnish).

- Virpi

Posted in Graphic recording, Illustrations, Infographics, Sketchnotes

8 Tips for being a Graphic Recorder

This is a guest post by my London based Business Illustrator colleague Richy K. Chandler. Richy has a background in comics writing and illustration (if you’ve ever read the Wallace & Gromit newspaper strip you’ve read Richy’s work). Recently Richy has been venturing into the fascinating world of graphic recording (also known as creative scribing). Here’s what Richy has learnt during those intense and exciting hours…

Richy K Chandler Business IllustratorThose not familiar with graphic recording, it’s an enjoyable but sometimes terrifying challenge for an illustrator.  The artist sits in on a meeting, event or series of talks.  Armed with paper and pens (or some other mark making device) they visualise what is being discussed. Often the work is then used as a discussion point at the end of the event.  Sometimes it is taped to walls for viewing.

Here are some tips, on being a graphic recorder for anyone into that kind of thing…

1.  Preparation 

As creative scribing is essentially live drawing and note taking in reaction to what is being said in the present, there’s little you can do in advance.  No prep – woohoo!

Of course, making sure you know what the themes of the event/talk will be, should certainly give you a head start.  A small amount of research if the themes are alien to you may be a good idea too, but you’re not being hired to be an expert in the field. Make sure you’re well rested and feeling fresh before you head into the arena!

Graphic facilitation by Richy K. Chandler from Business Illustrator Ltd

2. Tools of the trade

  • Sharpie Coloured Markers.  You want to do your scrawling with something that is quick and clean to use.  A range of different coloured markers works for me.
  • Uni Posca thick painty Markers.  These are great for filling in paper with nice opaque blocks of colour.
  • Pencil Case (preferably with a Buffy or Wacky Races design).  Keep yourself organised!
  • A2 Paper (thick enough to use markers on).  It’s easier to stay on the same page and work outwards than to keep having to change sheets of paper.  You’ll want to work big so that people clearly once the work is viewed/displayed.
  • Masking Tape.  Sometimes the best place to work at an event is on a wall with the paper taped up.
  • Pencil and eraser.  It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get the chance to pencil anything out before using the markers, but just in case.
  • Note paper. For scrawling quick notes of things you’ll want to draw later.
  • Tippex.  Not something to rely on but you never know.
  • Mobile Phone/iPad/Dictionary. There may be moments while scribing where you desperately need to look up an image as a quick reference.  How many eyes does a duck have?  That sort of thing.

If you’re like me, there may also be spellings you need to check too.  Worth remembering that you may not be able to get phone reception/wifi where you are.  If your dictionary app relies on that, then a mini paper dictionary (remember them?) is just as good and fills you with waves of nostalgia too.
Water, healthy snacks/lunch – to keep the brain going.  Maybe a Red Bull for emergency fuel towards the end of your session!  Though officially I don’t endorse that as it’s not good for you.  Delicious and refreshing though.

Graphic facilitation by Richy K. Chandler, Business Illustrator Ltd

3. Get yourself sorted

Once you kick off, every second counts, so you need to be wasting as little time as possible.
Find yourself the best possible place to listen and draw first.  If no table or desk is handy, taping paper to a wall or window is a decent easel.
Make sure you know where each colour of pen is.  I divide mine into different compartments in my pencil case (hot colours on one side, colds on the other) or rest them in organised piles where you can grab them with no fuss.
If you’re working in paper from an A2 sketch book, tear out a few pages in advance so you can quickly move from one sheet to another.
This may all sound a bit OTT but you could find yourself drawing faster than you’ve ever needed to before so whatever helps!

Graphic facilitation by Richy K. Chandler, Business Illustrator Ltd

4. Warm up

Do a few easy drawings before you begin for real.  The first drawing you do will probably not be your best, so good if this isn’t part of the work you’re going to display.

5.  No need to panic

Even after doing warm up drawings the first drawing you do for realsies could still be something you want to burn, or launch into space or feed to a goat.
There’s no need to be a perfectionist – you don’t to get every detail that the speaker is talking about down on paper. Just key points, and things you find interesting to visualise.  This is creative scribing not dictation, damn it!

No one assumes that the way you creative scribe is as good as you would draw given a proper amount of time.
Worse case scenario – if something a speaker says sounds like it’s pretty vital but you don’t hear it properly or understand it, you can always leave a bit of a space and go and ask them about it in a coffee break, then fill it in later.  Most likely the speaker will not rush through the really important points though, so as long as you’re paying attention you should be fine!

Graphic facilitation by Richy K. Chandler, Business Illustrator Ltd

6. Don’t get technical

The speaker may be describing something which is way beyond your understanding. We can’t be artistic wonders and experts on everything else too!

The good news is you’re there to visualise ideas, not do blueprint drawings of stuff. If someone if discussing the way a new piece of software improves performance on a super-computer.  An image of a happy computer user can tell the story as well as a badly informed image of microchips, enhancing the circuit board thingy via a disk utilisation wotsit. You get my point.

7.  Stay essential

Don’t feel you have to add detail to your drawings straight away.  Get the essentials down first, then add extra colour/details later.  This may mean when the speaker is saying less vital stuff, going over old ground, there’s a coffee break or the projector breaks down (always a godsend for a creative scriber).

8. Stick to 3-4 colours per image

It saves so much time.  I tend to switch colour scheme between image/talk/speaker.  This helps to differentiate between them, and looks good when the pages are displayed altogether.

Graphic recording by Richy K. Chandler, Business Illustrator Ltd

Well there you go.  Hope that’s helpful to some of you.

Now watch as Graphic Recording sweeps the nation…

Richy K. Chandler
Email: Richy(at)


The first version of this post was published on Richy’s personal website.

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When Your Web Content Strategy Can Benefit From Comics: 5 Factors

visual storytelling is effective

This blog post was first published as a guest post on the Content Marketing Institute website.

Virpi OinonenLike infographics, comics and comic-like visual content have a lot of viral potential. If you need convincing of this, just check out this presentation by Matthew Inman, the creator of the hugely successful website, The Oatmeal.

By incorporating comic-based visual imagery in your brand storytelling efforts, you tap into an engaging source of website content — and you do it in a way that’s usually quicker and more cost-effective to produce than other video content formats.

Of course, there are some key considerations you should be aware of before you run out and contact a comics artist or an agency. This post will help you decide whether comics might be a good fit for your web content strategy, and will provide some tips to help you avoid the most common pitfalls and use the format as effectively as possible.

1. Will your message benefit from the comic treatment?

How to use a semicolon by the Oatmeal

Excerpt from The Oatmeal comic on how to use a semicolon

Comics can be used for almost any message, but they really come in to their own when used to explain abstract, complex, or “unsexy” ideas or products. Unlike photos or videos, they are not shackled by real-world considerations. Comics artists can explain anything from how a web browser works to how to use semicolons properly. And while the same effect can be achieved using animation, these are more expensive and slower to produce.

Comics may be a good fit for your web content strategy if your organization’s goals include appearing more approachable and, well, a bit more human. Sometimes really slick and expensive looking visuals can accidentally signal that you are too big to deal with the issues of the regular guy. Start-ups often use playful graphics to distinguish themselves from established, yet “stuffy” or slow moving corporate players. You can do the same with comics.

Another area where comics can excel are health-related topics — especially where the health issue in question might be a bit embarrassing, or even frightening. There’s something about hand-drawn imagery that helps to make a taboo, scary, or embarrassing topic more approachable. So if you want people to share your content about, say, incontinence, a comic strip might be the way to go.

2. Will a comic resonate with your audience?


Based on a true story. Comic by the undersigned.

While it is true that some audiences may find comics (or “narrative infographics,” as I sometimes call them) a bit immature, you would be surprised how many senior managers in conservative industries appreciate this art form!

I would encourage content marketers to be open-minded here. Don’t assume you know how your audience will react — experiment on social media and see what happens. You might be surprised at the level of engagement you get!

3. What kind of comics might work for your brand?


Comics are a great way to connect with a well-defined audience segment. Comic by

Comics are not a single genre: As with movies, they communicate through a wide range of styles — from cerebral social commentary to silly adventure stories. Humor tends to increase shareability online, but depending on the message and the audience, you might want to consider a more serious tone.

Online comics aimed at grown-up audiences tend to combine wry observations with simple graphics, and can be targeted to multiple audiences at once. For example, the xkcd comic strip above could appeal to both programmers and science buffs; The Oatmeal is another fine example of comics with a wide appeal.

Another consideration with comics is the length. For content marketing purposes, short(ish) comics that illustrate a concept without overwhelming the rest of your content will likely work best.

Such short comics generally come in two types: the classic comic strip format (2-6 panels) and the vertical, infographic format. The latter can have as many as 30 drawings and still work extremely well online, as you can see from this example from The Oatmeal. Don’t worry if the reader has to scroll: Scrolling is actually a natural storytelling device — the controlled movement reveals the story to your audience members a little bit at a time, at their own pace.

You might also want to put some thought into the file format of your comics. Generally, simple image files (png, jpeg, gif) are the safest bet for using on a web page or as a stand-alone post on social media. Another simple, yet potentially effective, platform for comics is SlideShare, where clicking to the next slide functions as a storytelling device that’s similar to scrolling. If your audience consumes a lot of PowerPoint presentations online, a comic in the SlideShare format might be just the ticket.

A few words of warning:

  • Steer clear of traditional comic book layouts — they don’t usually work well online, because of the overall formatting on your web pages.
  • Another online no-no is the PDF file format. If you want to optimize your stories for online viewing and increase shareability, don’t bury your comic in a downloadable file.
  • You may also want to think twice about producing a comic book/graphic novel as part of your content marketing efforts. They require a lot of work, and are not usually sustainable over the long-term, unless they are made a high priority in your overall content marketing strategy (the exception here is if you choose to curate existing online comics into a book).

4. What style will best represent your business?

Realistic, cartoony, simple, slick… What kind of style would best support the message you are trying to convey? Keep in mind that the more elaborate the style, the longer it usually takes to produce.

Different styles have different connotations, as well. Hand-drawn comics tend to signal that you are more approachable; while slick vector graphics communicate professionalism, but can be perceived as somewhat impersonal. And a “cartoony” style works great for making a complex topic more understandable, but in some contexts (and for some people) they can give the off-putting impression that you are “dumbing-down” your message.

5. Where can you find a comics artist whose work will fit your brand goals?

Of all the considerations, this can be the most difficult. There are generally two types of comics artists: those who write and draw, and those who only draw (meaning that you would need a writer to provide them with the copy to use).

The most commercially popular comic strips have traditionally been created by one skilled artist (e.g., The Oatmeal, Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes). These are people who are good at coming up with clever visual ideas, as well as at creating copy that works well in conjunction.

However, many agencies pair a copywriter with an illustrator and expect them to produce a good comic. They might very well be capable of this, but when working this way, you may end up with copy that doesn’t measure up to a strong visual image, or a brilliant content concept that isn’t well translated visually. A good comics artist knows what does and doesn’t work well visually, and can create a story that will play to all the strengths of the format.

A few resources to get you started:

  • There are websites that list professional comics artists, such as Pro cartoonists in the UK, and the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.
  • You can also reach out to illustration agencies — while these services don’t generally list comics artists specifically, they do list the cartoonists at their disposal.
  • Though cartoonists are usually good at coming up with visual ideas, if you find their storytelling skills to be lacking, it may be a good idea to pair them with a copywriter to get the best results for your brand.
  • We at Business Illustrator of course :)

Virpi Oinonen

Posted in Comics, Visual content marketing

How to create infographics

This is a guest post by Matt Haworth, director and co-founder of Reason Digital, a UK based social enterprise that helps nonprofit organisations get the most out of digital media. The data resource links are aimed at UK based nonprofits, everything else is universally applicable. This is the second part of a two part series. His first post was about what makes a good infographic.

Matt Haworth, Reason DigitalThe steps to creating an infographic are roughly as follows:

1. Find an idea

Finding a good idea is the same as the principles of finding any good content:

  • Look on social media or your immediate contacts for inspiration
  • communicate your take on current news stories
  • devise a how-to guide, such as a guide to promoting your cause or campaigning on your behalf
  • does your cause involve any complex topics which need explaining?

2. Find sources of information

There is a range of public data available to help you compile effective infographics.

NHS statistics and data collections for information on illnesses, helath, lifestyle, hospital care or the health workforce.

Government data is an increasingly useful source of information for charities. Local authorities are increasingly publishing information about their services, so look out for an “Open Data” link on your local authority’s website. Other Government sources of data include the Office of National Statistics. Also, check out information about MPs on sites such as They Work For You and local authorities on Openly Local.

Freedom of Information requests. You can request information from any publicly-funded organisation (subject to some restrictions) according to the Freedom of Information Act. Find out more from theInformation Commissioner’s Office, or make a request online and check out an archive of previous FoI requests at the What Do They Know website. Check out “Voicing Your Right to Know“, NCVO’s guide to how FoI requests can help your campaigning.

Your own research. You will probably have your own collections of data and information you’ve collected about your service users or supporters over the years. Consider how it could be put to use to communicate what you do to funders, opinion formers or influencers.

3. Choose your data

It’s important you back up your claims with facts. When we designed our infographic about how charities can make better use of the Internet, we linked each fact to the original source of the information. It’s good practise, provides good transparency and encourages people to read the original reports if they’re genuinely interested in the topic.

If you’ve thoroughly researched your topic, you will have collected lots of information. Most of it won’t be suitable for an infographic – either the fact will be too specific or will be too complex to understand without supplying lots of additional background information. Choose only the most relevant data to help explain your idea, then group your facts into similar themes to develop a sensible and compelling narrative.

Think one graphic: one fact.

4. Plan your infographic

Sketch out or flowchart your infographic. How will it start? How will it end? What information will you communicate along the way?

It might be useful to start your plan with a “why?” – e.g “Why it will take another century to eradicate malaria at current funding levels” or “Why are under-24s struggling to find work?”

5. Devise a colour scheme

Screenshot -Kuler website

Colour is one of the most important considerations for your infographic – it will be the first thing people see, before they’ve read a single fact. A poorly-chosen colour scheme could cause background colours to clash with foreground elements, or, conversely, make important information indistinct from the background if there’s not enough colour contrast.

Colours can help you group ideas or themes, helping the reader to visually associate items together.

Choose three colours: the lightest should be the background colour, the other two to break up the sections. You can also use shades of the three main colours to keep the palette calming and cohesive rather than jarring and difficult on the eye.

Choose a colour scheme with a suitable contrast ratio – you can find free online tools to check the accessibility of your infographic’s colours, including the Colour Contrast Checker from WebAIM and acolour blindness simulator from Vischeck.

Use complimentary or contrasting colours and be aware of the psychological impact of different colours. Learn more about how to use colours effectively or look at some infographics about using colour, and use tools such as Adobe’s Kuler or Colour Lovers to browse some some complimentary colour schemes.

6. Choose or create your graphics

Screenshot -Reason Digital animation
Graphics used in an animation by Reason Digital

Your infographic will need to use themed graphics or illustrations to make its main points. Consider graphics relevant to the topic, e.g. icons of tapes or CDs or a pie chart shaped like a vinyl LP can be used to to represent music sales. You’ll also need reference graphics to use in keys and indeces, outside of the main data, to help explain the information. Make these attractive, relevant and easy to understand too.

Inkscape: is an image editor which can help you create two-dimensional illustrations. You can put together the bulk of your infographics in this tool, available for download onto multiple platforms. Take a look at how it can be used to visualise data.

For more traditional data visualisations, try charting tools such asHohliAxiis or Google Charts. Google Charts can produce simple charts and graphs which can be built by adding data to the end of a URL. If you’re more technically-savvy, you could even connect your Google Chart to a live data source, such as an XML or text file which exported from your own CRM systems, or from other Google products,such as Google Analytics. is an online tool which will enable you to create robust infographics which are more user-friendly than some other automated tools. It’s currently in private beta, but you can browse examples of what it can create.

7. Choose your fonts

Make sure you use a clear, readable typeface for your text. Don’t use too much dense sections of text which make your infographic difficult to read. Rather, use text sparingly, use large text and use short bursts of bold text to highlight key words, numbers or facts.If you’re looking to create word-based visualisations, Wordle lets you create a word cloud and is great to visualise your text-based data, such as surveys or feedback.

You can find free fonts online in repositories such as Fonts500 orddfont if you don’t have access to your own font library. Smashing Magazine regularly features the best new free fonts, or you could search articles such ourTuts’ “Free Font Websites Eeryone Should Visit” to find more.

Remember that the principles of accessibility apply to infographics too: make sure your typeface is clear, legible and of a sufficient size to be easily read by your target audience.

8. Knowledge

Knowledge is power and imparting that knowledge should be powerful too. Your infographic is likely to be imparting two main types of knowledge:

  1. simply presenting facts and
  2. making assumptions and deductions based on statistics.

Consider your overall message: what overall point are you trying to make? Think about your narrative and how the story will flow from one statistic to the next. Work on a script that connects the facts into a coherent narrative, then edit and re-edit!

9. Check your drafts & refine

As a final step in the planning process, consider the following topics:

  1. Is all the information represented in the infographic? Have you missed anything? Could you leave anything out?
  2. Are the illustrations accurate? Have you checked all the statistics? Have you checked the grammar and spelling?
  3. Can you easily understand the information from a quick glance? Share it with colleagues family and friends who may be unfamiliar with the topic. Can they understand it too?
  4. Does it educate the reader about the topic? They should learn something new from having looked at your infographic, otherwise it’s time and resources wasted.
  5. Is it easy to consume? Do the topics flow? Is there a sensible narrative? Are the colours comfortable to look at? Is the text easy to read?

As with all communications: consider who will be looking at your infographic: demographics will decide your colour scheme, graphics and icons used as well as the nature of the facts and the overall presentation. Once you’ve checked everything, you’re ready to brief your designer.

To recap:

If you’re creating your own infographic, remember you need these three most important elements from everything I’ve said above:

  1. visual: the colour palette, typefaces and iconography
  2. content: your sources, statistics and timeframes
  3. knowledge: facts, deductions, conclusions

For inspiration

Looking for some beautiful or innovative infographics for inspiration? Try

Finally, for an interesting discussion about the dos and don’ts of designing infographics, check out this article on Smashing Magazine and this counter-argument offering a different viewpoint. Make up your own mind and start designing infographics!

Where can I find designers who do infographics?

If you want to commission an infographic for your organisation, the best place to start is with your current suppliers. Ask your current web company if they make infographics or interactive data visualisations. Ask the graphic designers who lay out your reports whether they have experience of designing more creative infographics. If they don’t, ask if they know someone who does – they will likely be keeping an eye on the competition and could point you in the direction of someone who can help.

An increasing number of graphic designers are likely to be familiar with the art of creating infographics, as they’re popping up all over the place at the moment. If you work with companies on a pro-bono basis or have volunteers contributing to your marketing and communications, ask questions or run skills audits to find out whether they have experience or could learn how to create infographics.

If you’ve been inspired to learn more about infographics, consider subscribing to the following blogs to keep yourself up to date and informed about the subject:

Matt Haworth

Follow Matt on Twitter: @acrim

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