What if reading comics was not only fun, but also educational?
According to a paper presented earlier this year at a conference on Human factors in computer systems, comics can help convey complex data. In a small study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and others tried to find out which method was best for presenting different sets of data: a text written with a picture, an infographic or a comic strip. They gave study participants information in each format, then tested them on their understanding of the data they learned.
A small majority of participants were able to retain more information from the comic book than from the other two formats. In general, people thought that one of the biggest advantages of the comic book format over computer graphics was that the comic immediately indicated which direction you were supposed to read the information. Infographics don’t have a fixed reading order, so it’s not always clear what information needs to be seen first.
In contrast, research subjects thought the comics were sometimes too repetitive. To maintain the narrative structure, the same image often appeared in multiple panels with only a small change, but some readers found that boring. One participant was cited as saying “every time I see new images (panels), I expect something new ”.
It was only a small study, and there wasn’t a huge difference between comics and infographics when it came to getting the point across, but educational comics can have other purposes. than to explain data.
One of the co-authors of the Data Comics Effectiveness study was a scientific comic artist. Matteo farinella. Last week he also spoke about science comics at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Switzerland. Here he demonstrated how he uses visual aids to convey complex ideas. For example, a comic book allows you to introduce new types of characters to drive the story. In a regular written non-fiction sci-fi article, these characters are always real people – usually the scientists who did the work, or sometimes patients who received some scientific breakthrough. But in a comic book, you can get creative, and introduce fictional characters or even characters representing scientific objects.
This round table also included two other scientific comic artists: Claudia Flandoli and Tailgate. Flandoli showed how the peculiar reading style of comics allows you to introduce many details and asides that would be extremely tedious to include in the prose. If she wants to develop a concept, she can add a panel to “zoom in” on the detail, or add an aside. The layout of the comic makes it clear to the reader that it involves a larger story detail. In the written text, it would be tedious paragraphs of examples.
Comics also have the potential to inspire people to explore scientific ideas. Hayanon, who has been making comics for over 15 years, shared the story of a researcher who was inspired to become a scientist after reading one of her comics years ago.
The image-based nature of comics also allows them to cross language barriers. While some of Hayanon’s Japanese comics have been translated into 25 different languages, others don’t use text at all. For example, a recent article in PLOS One describes how textless comics were used in Madagascar to communicate scientific recommendations on farmland management.
Even though this medium has been around for a few decades now, only a few studies have investigated whether comics are effective in teaching people complex scientific concepts. It has always been a ‘good to have’ rather than an essential part of science education, and comics may not be suitable for all types of information. But who knows, if science and data comics prove to be more effective than other media, maybe we’ll see more of it.