What Alan Moore and the red thread can teach us about information design

In addition to running After the flood, I am writing a comic. To make a successful comic, the very first stage – before any thinking on form-thinking – needs to be a careful process of planning the  purpose and motivation behind the story.

The point I want to make here is about editing, and how the writer should play the role of mediator in defining the way the narrative is presented. Much in the same way, in fact, as a designer should define the way data is displayed…

Image adapted from ‘Watchmen’ Cover #1

Building worlds, telling stories

My definition of comics is simple. They’re sequential art stories; drawings underpinned by a written script that land big ideas with impact and rhythm. More philosophically, comics have a punk rock soul. They burn bright for a short time, and within that time make their mark in a resounding way.

They’re also based on systems.

I recently did a talk for Winchester School of Art on the subject of making sense of such systems. Designers should be well placed to help people navigate and use systems over the next few decades: all sectors are currently experiencing a deluge of data, and this data often underpins complex domain systems within sectors such as finance or health.

It is the designer’s job to make sense of the data by mediating the system to the user, just as it is the comic writer’s job to hook a reader and maintain interest in a story. The key area where writers and designers meet is in the way the world or system requires a mediated journey through it.

The writer is the guide through the story-world. The designer is the mediator through the system. Their mutual goal is the same: to present something to the audience in a way that makes immediate sense.

Image adapted from ‘Judge Dredd: Mega City Two’

The city, complex – figure and ground

Information designers are familiar with the concept of a figure and ground. The ground contains all basic information from a data set, and the figure is what we need to know. An A road or a red patch in a heatmap is a figure on an otherwise neutrally coloured ground. In comics, the equivalent to the ground is the world; the equivalent to figure is the narrative.

Alan Moore, one of the world’s most important writers, once said: “It is easy to create a fictional world, but creating the red thread of story that goes through it is the hard bit.”

He was saying that anyone with some imagination can create a premise or place that feels and looks different – candy cane trees, talking animals, future dystopias, so on and so forth. That story forms the ground. The work really starts with maintaining people’s interest in that world via an intriguing narrative: that is, the formation of the figure.

A common mistake for comic book authors is to concentrate on the design of world elements – the design of the dark rainy city, or front covers and character sketches that exist only as a poster, trapped in time. They do this because it’s a lot easier to create cool images than it is to formulate the intricacies of a story.

Some designers are the same when it comes to the presentation of data: they mistake the act of showing all the data for showing only the most useful and pertinent data. They overemphasise the whole data-set in all its complexity, failing to call out and focus on the data that most informs, intrigues and ultimately engages the viewer.

The mistake is focusing on that whole dark, rainy city, instead of the subset that is the story and characters that inhabit it; the smaller, more interesting tales borne of a larger world.

Image adapted ‘Watchmen’

The red thread

This thinking has been first and foremost in developing my comic – laying down the foundation of story before getting bogged down in the creation of the world in which it takes place.

Information designers need to take the same tack: focus not on the whole, but on the relevant parts. As with finding the compelling narrative stream that works its way through a world, they need to find the information that most makes sense of the data in which it is contained.

They need to work out what is figure, and what is ground.

Additionally, for data design, we need to show more than just one path of information – we need to give users many points of view. Data may have a default setting, or a CEO may want their custom view, or the ‘story’ may change over time as the system grows more accustomed to the preferences of a particular user. Editing of the view of the whole system is vital: the designer is that mediator.

So, while basic skills like information architecture are sound, designers these days cannot and should not show users the whole system. They need to design pathways through that system, just as Alan Moore weaves his red thread through the rich story-worlds he creates.

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