Art direction and design of comics – part 3

design and design elements

Graphic design, at its most basic is about the combination of words and text with pictures to effectively communicate a message to a reader/viewer. A lot of the time this involves some form of artistic skill to make it aesthetically pleasing.

Good design is hard to measure and really hard to nail down in writing. I would say that all good design has the following in common: purpose (i.e. is it useful), beauty, innovation, organization, ease of use, honesty, timelessness and restraint. Good design tends to solve a problem or make something easy to understand and use. It makes the most of the current technologies while at the same time looking towards future needs. And while aesthetics aren’t necessarily the most important quality, most well designed work is pleasing to look at.

The elements of design
So far, I’ve used “elements of design” a lot in this series and what I’m talking about are various graphic devices that a designer can use to create a desired look or effect in a design. These include typography, photography, illustration, rules, bars, icons/symbols and other graphics, textures and colour. All design uses some form of these elements but not necessarily all of them. The elements of design, as they relate to this series of posts, are important because they form the visual language that can help differentiate a book. Let’s look at them a little closer.

Typography encompasses a couple of different fields, but relating to design it is the study of type, type design and how type is laid out on the page to achieve a desired effect. You can’t be a designer without some working knowledge of how type is designed and why it is the way it is. Well you can, but the more you know the better your design work will be. There are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of typefaces to choose from. A skilled designer can sort through all of that clutter and pick the most correct typeface for the job (and yes, there is such a thing as the most correct typeface for a job).

Photography is something you may not have a reason to use a lot of in your comic, but it has tons of options and can bring a different language to your work. People read photographs differently than they do illustration and artwork so you can use this to add another level of communication to your stuff. There are so many different kinds of photography to play with that I won’t list them all here, but go out and see what ties into your story and experiment with it.

Illustration is really what comics are about and is probably what the majority of your book will involve. Illustration can be used for virtually anything and has an incredible amount of flexibility and conceptual possibilities and this increases your options in a way that photography just doesn’t. For a designer, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that an illustration can be drawn, painted or built to exact design specs that you provide. I always try to get illustration produced for the project and specs that I’m working on and not try to shoe horn something into a layout that it wasn’t designed for. Why? Because this always produces better results.

Rules, bars, icons/symbols and other graphics are a great way to establish a visual language for a design system and you should think about using some or all of these in any design. The thing to keep in mind (as I mentioned in the previous post about art direction) is to not let these take over the art/photography. These elements should be used to accentuate the design and help create a consistent “look”.

Textures can be made up of papers, ink work, paint, woodgrains, fabrics or virtually anything and everything that you can photograph or scan. Textures can be used to create different moods and atmospheres in a design and are a great way to have something other than a solid colour in a background.

Colour is probably the hardest of the elements to work with because of people’s preconceived associations and its built in cultural meanings. Having said that, colour is such a great tool to design with and you shouldn’t take it for granted. A lot of people need think about printing costs when developing their books, but often a lack of colour – i.e. black and white books – can be just as effective.


What comic has good design? Why? What do they do? Here’s my list of good “mainstream” (or at least “widely available to the masses and not obscure”) comics that I think have good design:

For a series that had so many different artists, the consistency of the art direction is amazing. Some credit must be given to the editor, Karen Berger who supervised the whole run. The conceptual covers by Dave McKean flavoured the entire series and set the stage for the stories no matter who did the interior art while the scope of the design involved in the lettering by Todd Klein can’t be praised enough. Sandman is a really good example of how the design elements can heighten and maintain the overall look of the book above and beyond just the art for the story.

Sin City
Frank Miller did a really good job of carrying the overall art direction off of the pages of this series and into the rest of the design from the lettering through to the masthead and general layout of each issue or collected edition. Miller has a reputation for great pacing in his stories and he’s managed to bring that sensibility to the design as well. The design was so strong that they even carried it through to the movie. You can’t get much better material to learn from.

The simplicity of the design and typography in this series makes it easy to over look. The way all of the design elements tie into the artwork of the story perfectly demonstrates exactly what good art direction and design is about: packaging the story in a way that heightens the enjoyment. It would be too easy to try and add excessive design or the wrong design to a simple story like this. The restraint is really what makes it work.

The flip side to the Bone series, Kabuki is a good example of where the art, design, typography and everything else is mixed together. Even styles change to help communicate the message. The point is that the intensity of the design overwhelms your senses as you read the book and that helps to enrich the reading experience.

the Spawn family of comics
For whatever reason, the Spawn family of comics somehow “gets” design and the art direction perfectly gels with the gritty characters and stories. I could point to Todd McFarlane’s schooling in graphic design, or his involvement with his toy company or the Spawn movie or cartoon. I don’t know. But the Spawn line of comics manages to use design to make them consistent, distinctive and it’s relevant to the content in a way that a lot of comics just aren’t.

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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