March 23, 2014

SCHULMAN | Understanding Comics … And the Microsoft Surface Tablet

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By ERIC SCHULMAN

Second semester senior year I rediscovered comics or, more specifically, I discovered a comic that reignited my interest in comics (which is ironic because most teachers enjoy checked-out seniors almost as much as I enjoy justifying reading comics as a freshman in college). The comic I discovered was Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which is actually a comic about comics. It sounds pretentious but the visuals are great and McCloud wrote the script, pencilled the layouts and inked the artwork himself, making him a two-dimensional triple threat. It’s an easy read but it is witty, insightful and will make you rethink language, writing and art. I would highly recommend it even if you have to justify your new found appreciation for comics the book will instill in you.

Understanding Comics describes how comics combine both words and pictures to convey much more than either can alone. McCloud believes that comics articulate in words what pictures can’t, but at the same time, use pictures when words fail. In the same way literature’s grammar relies on words, a comic’s grammar relies on symbols to bridge word and image. However, I don’t think this technique is limited to comics. User interfaces and applications, at least on the Microsoft Surface Tablet, employ a grammar based on word and image as well. And, understanding this grammar isn’t easy if you’re unfamiliar with it (As a full disclosure, this column may have resulted from my frustrating experience coaching my dad with his new Surface).

Users struggle with the Surface if they don’t understand its comic-book-like combination of graphics and text directing users. Although I was impressed my dad replaced his iPad with the Surface Pro — sacrificing his oversized iPhone’s simplicity for Surface’s versatility and power — he couldn’t copy and paste with Microsoft Word during his first week with it. He didn’t realize the little clipboard designating copy and paste on his laptop would be identical on the tablet despite the limited changes Microsoft has made to Word since he started using it in 1998. After all, why would Microsoft drastically change Word when it makes lots of money by changing color scheme?

I may tease my dad about his new tablet (only because I love him), but working the Surface, applications and user interfaces requires picking up on visual cues — the kind you find in comics. McCloud describes how comics utilize symbols and other visuals to convey meaning. For example, if you didn’t understand speech bubbles you would be really confused by comics. Although I see poofy clouds as talk more mornings than I would like (only because Ithaca is so cold), you can’t argue speech bubbles are an easily recognizable visual phenomenon. Most people know speech bubbles represent and convey dialogue from left to right, but try interpreting Manga speech bubbles the same way, and it will confuse you more than the Windows 8 start screen on the Surface confused my dad because they flow differently.

The Windows 8 Start Screen tiles look suspiciously like comic book panels, and a speech bubble designates the Surface’s messaging application. In the same way speech bubbles might confuse people who don’t read comics, technologically challenged folk just haven’t adjusted to technologies’ visual lexicon. Understanding that the clipboard in Microsoft Word’s upper right hand corner represents a shortcut for copying and pasting text isn’t intuitive. But it is frustratingly obvious if you recognize the button from your email, your web browser and every free text editor you’ve ever downloaded to avoid shelling out 75 dollars for Microsoft Office.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes how comics books employ a combination of words, pictures and symbols to prod readers along. Like the Surface, most user interfaces and applications work similarly. So much so, that Google actually asked McCloud to design a comic explaining Chrome for its 2008 release. The folks at Google must also know that comics, user interfaces and applications are similar not only because they are both foreign to my dad, but also because they both combine text and graphics to guide users and readers.

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