On the richness of using a comic poster in a workshop setting

Ika Darnhofer, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna

I would like to make the case for the value of comics to engage in discussing preliminary research results with participants in a research project. To use comics as a tool to interact with a group of people, I propose to extend the notion of ‘comics’ to include not only sequential art tucked in panels, but also graphic storytelling more broadly, i.e. any form of pictures (more or less in sequence) in artful combination with words. Based on the experience in a project, I argue for the advantages in using comics in a poster format, and I share my reflections on the strengths and challenges of using comics as a tool to communicate and discuss research results.

In the project ‘RETHINK’ we aimed at better understanding the resilience of family farms, i.e. what allows them to persist on the long term. We collected data through the usual semi-structured interviews, discussing the strengths and pitfalls of traditions, current challenges, and what approaches to tackle them were seen as effective and desirable by farmers. To get feedback and validate our preliminary results, we wanted to discuss them with the farmers. This raised the question: how do we present our analysis in a way that allows us to effectively engage with them?

Research reports tend to be jargon-heavy and are rarely read — much less critiqued — by practitioners. Engaging practitioners in a discussion after a PowerPoint presentation is also challenging, given the presumed authority of the speaker and the fleeting presence of the slides. We thus decided to work at visualizing the results to make them more accessible and engaging. Comics seemed perfect as they would allow to break down the barriers between scientists and practitioners by using a ‘language’ that is accessible to both, enabling practitioners to feel as competent as scientists.

While in countries such as the US, Japan, France, or Belgium comics is a well-established art form, in Austria few adults would want to be caught reading a comic book. Thus it was important to be careful in the use of comics, to avoid being misconstrued as not taking the participants and the challenges they face seriously. Rather than a comic book (which is usually intended to be read by one person, alone), we felt that the large poster format used by graphic recorders would be preferable in a workshop setting, as several people could stand in front of it and discussing it. So we worked with a professional graphic artist and through several iterations came up with a comic poster which was about one meter high and three meters long.

The comic poster (here in the original German, and the English version) was a complete success: it led to very animated discussions during the workshop and we were asked to reprint a number of copies by various groups as they wanted to use it for their own activities and awareness raising. They felt the comics captured key issues well, communicating problems in a positive way, inviting open discussions.

Excerpt from the poster, illustrating the traditional farms and the values that could not be discussed or questioned, both regarding gender roles, and what confers status (farm size rather than innovativeness). Through stabilizing the system these traditional values increase the risk of rigidity and reduces adaptability.

Why one large poster?

Before reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses that various forms of comic may have in common, I would like to briefly highlight the advantages of presenting a visual narrative on one large poster, especially for use in a workshop setting:

  • In a poster all the visual and textual elements are there to be seen simultaneously, so that the overall narrative remains present. The meaning is not only conveyed by individual images or bits of text, but through the placement and the relationship of components (see ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis, p. 66). Thus, while one can zoom-in on a specific scene, neighbouring images provide context and the simultaneity of the whole poster is there to reverse or qualify any conclusion.
  • The individual drawings are arranged on the poster, but without predefining the sequence in which they should be looked at or read. Of course closeness will create implicit links, and similar colours and shape will suggest linkages even if the graphics are far apart on the poster. However, how the elements are juxtaposed on the poster does not offer a ‘definite’ account, as the individual images may be linked differently, opening up new interpretations.
  • A drawn image is captured quicker than text, enabling an engagement with the results presented, with little preliminary explanation or individual study of the poster.
  • The large format enables groups of people to discuss what is depicted on the poster, contrasting their interpretation, and thus enabling a social process of sense making.
  • Presenting the results as preliminary and the poster as ‘just a print-out’ (rather than as a finalized, original piece of art), allowed the participants to use markers to add elements and to write comments on the poster, thus interacting directly with it.

Strengths and challenges of using comics

The main strengths of using comics, as opposed to other forms of visualisation, were:

  • To make humans visible and put them at the heart of the narrative, rather than focusing on abstract concepts such as ‘administrative burden’ or ‘economic pressures’ which tend to populate scientific reports.
  • Cartoon characters usually have some emotional expression on their face. This affective dimension enables identification by participants and is likely to elicit an emotional reaction, promoting engagement and discussion.
  • The use of simplified iconic cartoon characters give a ‘light touch’, which enables difficult issues to be raised and discussed (e.g. jealousy or ill-will towards innovators)

But as any medium, it also has challenges that need to be carefully taken into account:

  • Certain issues will be more amenable to graphic representation than others. Choosing comics as a medium will thus influence which topics are presented as research results. This selection will also be influenced by the aim to create an overall narrative. It is thus important to remain reflexive of how the medium — and the work with a graphic artist — influences which results are highlighted and communicated.
  • The emotional strength of comics partly builds on the fact that they are overdrawn. Yet it is important to be careful in the use of caricature and stereotypes. For example, how farmers are typically stylised by urban people, does not reflect how they perceive themselves. Unthoughtful use of caricature might thus make participants feel misrepresented and misunderstood.
  • The fact that a comic is open to interpretation, means that it is difficult to ‘control’ how it will be understood. Indeed, people’s prior perceptions, experiences, attitudes, social background, cultural orientation, and behavioural dispositions influence the reaction they will have to images and the messages they take away (Nicholson-Cole, 2005). Hence we can never presume that a particular message will be delivered through an comic, no matter how carefully designed.

So, what?

The use of comics allowed us to make the research a more cooperative endeavour by taking away the air of authority that is too often associated with the status of scientist, and which makes it difficult for participants to question or discuss the results. As the success of the comic poster showed us, comics definitely have the potential to get research findings across to a much wider audience. The work on the comic poster also shaped the research process by encouraging discussions within the research team, and between the team and the graphic artist. Engaging with comics thus promoted both personal and procedural reflexivity. While it is not part of methodological orthodoxy, I am convinced that comic posters as one expression of Graphic Social Science can be a tool to enhance reflexivity during the research process, and opens up many new creative possibilities to present and disseminate results.

Ika Darnhofer is Associate Professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. She also used comics by Simon Kneebone to illustrate a book on farming systems research (Springer, 2012), and a paper the resilience of family farms (Journal of Rural Studies, 2016).