Art direction and design of comics – part 2

what is art direction?

A lot of people throw around a term – “Look & Feel” – which I hate. Why? Because what they’re really talking about is art direction and the overall tone of the design (how the piece looks and what it feels like, right?). I define art direction as being the overarching guide, theme or rules that flavour what goes into a design. It encompasses the entire project and includes typography, icons/symbols, graphics, illustrations, photographs, charts and text in a unified design.

Art direction is essentially the management of the artistic and design elements of a project. It’s also making sure that they are consistently applied across all materials.

So what does this mean when applied to comics?
For the most part, comics have always been defined by the art in the story and the other design elements have been secondary – or not considered at all. Current comics look pretty much like comics from 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Yes I know production values have gotten better – colouring and printing are obvious examples of this – but the actual elements that are used in the design are relatively the same. [Note: for more about the elements of design, see my next post]

Here’s the thing, why are comics that are vastly different using similar design elements? Batman comics are designed similar to Spiderman comics. In my opinion these should be vastly different since they are completely different characters that have different stories. 

Comics have access to better design
The confusing thing for me is that the companies that own these characters have used better design and art direction in other mediums. Take the bat franchise – off the top off head there are movies, cartoons, toys and games. All of which use art direction and design that is vastly superior to what we see not only in the monthly books, but collected editions and graphic novels. The bat comics even had Chip Kidd, an award winning book designer, design a masthead system that was used for a couple of years. But this wasn’t expanded to a larger system, the art direction was limited.

[EDIT – I recently read online that Chip Kidd actually worked on a bunch of the new logos for DC. So maybe I should have dug a little deeper when I was researching this article and I would have discovered this so when I used him as an example it was helping my point. But regardless, this doesn’t change my overall point that I’m trying to make here: the art direction isn’t consistent across all the mediums and comics for the most part are especially lacking.]

So why doesn’t DC (and by extension Warner Brothers) establish an art direction for the bat franchise that is consistent across all mediums? [As an interesting side discussion here, Warner Brothers is also responsible for the Harry Potter franchise and its art direction is incredibly consistent.]

What can art direction do?
The main reason why art direction is something to think about is that it creates a way to differentiate one book from others. If we look at the top magazines over the past couple of years – Wired, Bloomberg Business Week, New York, etc. – each has a distinct “design” approach (or look) that helps it to communicate. If you remove all the pictures from the magazines, it will still communicate something about its content and that’s strong art direction.

The issue I see with a lot of “mainstream” comics is that they tend towards the generic in that they have similar designs. Remove the artwork and how different do the books look? So in the example above, how different are Batman comics from Spiderman comics with the art taken out? Heck, the lettering is even similar. Why?

Now this may seem like a ridiculous thing to say about a medium that is dependent on visuals to tell a story, but the design that supports the story is just as important as the story itself and can help to set a book apart. This is a fundamental thing to understand about design and why I think it’s so important to finishing off a book properly – it helps to communicate something about the story as well.

In the end, good art direction consists of an overarching vision for how the design ties together and ensuring that this is consistently applied. Maybe just as importantly, it’s also about restraint and knowing when to highlight something – whether that’s typography, illustration, a texture or whatever generates interest for the reader. The best art directors have great taste in typography, photography, illustration and I guess design and they consistently use good judgment in their work. Good art direction is less about making your design look good with unimportant details and more about showing off the illustration and photography that you’ve got (and hopefully you get stunning illustration and photography to work with).

Just to recap, good art direction consists of:
1. Consistent vision that’s applied throughout. It plays an important role in all parts of the design (book, poster, website, whatever), as well as the writing, pencils, inks, colours and lettering.
2. Superior use of typography for clarity, organization, ease of use and aesthetics.
3. Well established design elements that make it stand out from the crowd and consistent use of graphic devices.
4. The design ties into to essence of the story, character or “brand”. 

One of the reasons to “art direct” a project is to help figure out what you want the visuals to communicate and then establish how the design does that. Then you can use the design to highlight, expand upon or reinforce key messages in the story.

So how do you apply all of this? Tune into Part 3 for more about design and Part 4 for how to put everything together. 

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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