An inside look at the making of a science comic about protecting your hearing!

 
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Have you ever considered comics as part of your dissemination package?

Meaning, have you ever thought to have a comic created to explain your findings?

If not, then my hope is that this blog post is one step towards getting you more interested in leveraging the power of comics to communicate your work more effectively.

(yes, I’m being totally serious)

Not many people know this, but one of the reasons I became interested in science communication was because of a blog I started in graduate school. It’s closed down now, but the blog was about cycling—particularly the intersection of cycling and social equity. I drew comics and created custom graphics for the blog and they were a hit.

I experienced how comics and cartoons sparked engagement, discussion, and understanding more than any other visual I created for my blog.

From that experience, I learned that comics/cartoons have significant potential for improving research and science communication. Infographics are great, but comics might be better. And just to catch you up to speed: There’s even a Journal of Comics Scholarship a Comics Studies Society that has an annual conference that has some of the best visual notetaking and slide design I’ve ever seen for an academic conference, a website about helping you put together a course on comics, and a Facebook group where social scientists share research/science comics.

In other words: comics are gaining momentum as a useful form of scholarship and research dissemination. So, when I formed Creative Research Communications, LLC I hoped someone would commission me to make a science/research/evaluation comic for them. Thankfully, someone did: Dr. Allison Coffin!

Dr. Coffin is an Associate Professor at in the Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience Department of Washington State University - Vancouver. I met Dr. Coffin because I was invited to give a workshop on effective presentation and data visualization design at Science Talk 2018 (and she is the President of the Executive Board).

After that, she mentioned wanting a comic about her lab’s research. You can see the finished comic on her website. When I shared a draft of this post for approval, Dr. Coffin wanted to add why she was interested in having a comic made:

"I’m passionate about science communication and outreach and thought that a comic would be a great way to share a bit of our research in a fun way. Also, I’m starting a new hearing loss awareness campaign focused on the dangers of noise exposure from loud music, and again, the comic is a great way to connect with this audience. It was a fun experience working with Echo to create this comic!"

This blog post is a behind-the-scenes post about the comic creation process.


Before we get started…there’s a free PDF download available that’s related to this post. It has:

  • 3 prompts to help you brainstorm what your comic could be about.

  • 3 comic creation tips to help think more visually and help you create a comic.

  • 5 comic page layouts you can use to sketch out your comic!

 
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GET YOUR FREE PDF DOWNLOAD BY JOINING THE COMMUNICATION CAFÉ (TOTALLY FREE) USING THIS FORM:


1. I learned about The Coffin Lab’s research and goals for the comic. Then I created the first sketch.

My research background is mostly focused on improving the community response or policies for social issues, mostly intimate partner violence. Dr. Coffin studies hair cells and hearing loss using zebra fish.

How could someone like me make a comic about a research topic I don’t know anything about?

Frankly, the skills involved with creating comics for others are similar to the skills I learned in graduate school. My PhD is in community psychology, which is kinda like getting a degree in community-based participatory research. That involves a lot of asking, listening, and learning. I was trained to be brought into projects where I might not necessarily be the content expert, but could bring in methodological expertise.

My role in this project was to visualize the ideas brought to me by the Coffin Lab. Plus, it wasn’t just me: my partner has a long background in art and drawing, so he added even more drawing & illustration expertise to the project.

Based on our initial video consultation, and a fun idea that Dr. Coffin emailed me (“since my last name is Coffin and we are the Coffin Lab, and we study hearing cell death, would it be too cheesy to include hearing cells in little coffins in the cartoon?”) I sketched the first storyboard:

 
The first storyboard sketch based on the video consultation and ideas sent via email

The first storyboard sketch based on the video consultation and ideas sent via email

 

My digital illustration skills are significantly better than my hand drawing skills. 😂 But still, it gives enough detail to understand what the panels will show, and provides clients with something to respond to. For many people, that’s much easier to work from than a blank page.

At the same time, I sent a worksheet for Dr. Coffin to complete. The worksheet asked questions about what their lab does and what they hope to accomplish with the comic. I also provided some sample comic pages and invited them to sketch ideas for the storyboard, if they wanted to.

I’ve made an updated version of this worksheet (with new material) available for free for anyone to download.

 
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Feel free to use this to draft ideas for your own comic. If you can finish your comic from there, great (then please share it with me, I’d love to see it!). Otherwise, send it to me and I’ll give you a quote for how much it would cost to digitally illustrate your idea.


2. The Client’s First Sketch

Dr. Coffin completed the worksheet and Alexandria Hudson, a graduate student working with Dr. Coffin, drew a new sketch. The details are a bit hard to see because it’s a scanned copy, but they sent some great ideas in this first draft that made it into the final comic:

  • A standard heading for “Coffin Comics” with the main characters on a stage, which would be used for any future comics.

  • A zebrafish wearing ear muffs (because the focus would be on protecting hearing at loud events, like concerts). The sweater is a set up for future comics.

As for the remaining parts of the comic, Dr. Coffin emailed me asking whether the comic should be more focused on one aspect of hearing loss at a time. I agreed, so we decided that the focus of the first comic would be how noise contributes to hearing loss.

That’s why going through this sketching process is so valuable. It gives everyone a chance to think things through, revise, and create better ideas!

We were now ready to take these ideas and visualize them using our favorite professional design software. Nope. NOT Adobe Illustrator: We used Affinity Designer!

 
Storyboard sketch by Alexandria Hudson

Storyboard sketch by Alexandria Hudson

 

3. The first digital draft

Through several email exchanges, we created this first digital draft for the heading and three of the four panels. We brought back in the earlier idea to include a coffin (how could we not, I mean seriously).

By the way, I’m so glad I started wearing ear plugs at concerts. Listen to Dr. Coffin, dear reader: protect your hearing!

 
First digital illustration draft sent to the comic

First digital illustration draft sent to the comic

 

We were undecided on how to illustrate one of the panels: it could either be the zebrafish talking again, or it could be an illustration of The Coffin Lab. I offered to have them just send me a photo of their lab if they wanted to go with that option, but Alexandria Hudson did something even better: another sketch with both!

 
Panel sketch by Alexandria Hudson

Panel sketch by Alexandria Hudson

 

4. How the client is using the final comic & where you can see the final version.

We translated this sketch as much as possible (space was limited so we couldn’t add all the details) into the third panel and the comic was finalized! They used a part of the comic as a thumbnail for their website (😍), and clicking on it takes you to the comic.

 
Final comic made for The Coffin Lab. See it on their website (and check out all the cool work they’re doing) at  https://labs.wsu.edu/allison-coffin/coffin-comics/

Final comic made for The Coffin Lab. See it on their website (and check out all the cool work they’re doing) at https://labs.wsu.edu/allison-coffin/coffin-comics/

 

By the way, I’m often talking about creating visuals with the intention of re-purposing them, and this is a perfect example of doing that! A piece of the (1) comic was used as a (2) website graphic!

Do YOU want a research/science comic or cartoon? We would LOVE to make one for you.

A cartoon is just one panel, and that might be all you need! A comic is multiple panels. We can illustrate a cartoon, comic, or just a standalone image for you (a custom illustration for your science blog, presentation, or more!)

One idea is to grab the free PDF download mentioned below and complete it as best you can, and we can illustrate your ideas from there. BUT, if you struggle with that and have a hard time, don’t let that discourage you! We can help with that part of the process, too!


Before you go…there’s a free PDF download available that’s related to this post. It has:

  • 3 prompts to help you brainstorm what your comic could be about.

  • 3 comic creation tips to help you think more visually and help you create a comic.

  • 5 comic page layouts you can use to sketch out your comic!

 
Mockup.png
 

GET YOUR FREE PDF DOWNLOAD BY JOINING THE COMMUNICATION CAFÉ (TOTALLY FREE) USING THIS FORM: