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