December 1, 2014
‘What is HCDE?’ New comics class aims to answer the question
For a field that prides itself on making life easier for users, its name – “human-centered design” – is remarkably hard to explain.
Maybe comics, with their juxtaposition of images, words and to-the-point expressions, can help. A new class at the University of Washington that teaches comic artistry to undergraduate and graduate students is using comics to explain what, exactly, the field of human-centered design is all about.
When the class ends this month, students will assemble and publish a print book showcasing their comics.
“This course is for students to build their skills, and it’s also a way for us to tell the general public what we’re doing in human-centered design and engineering,” said Charlotte Lee, a UW associate professor in the department and co-instructor of the class. “The field is about trying to figure out how to bring people into the design process. We’re hoping our comics can help communicate that message.”
Lee teaches the class with Jeremy Kayes, a local artist who organizes the Seattle Indie Comic and Game Artists meet-up group and author of “The Indies.” Lee found Kayes when she stopped by his meet-up, which has more than 500 members and brings together artists of all skill levels who want to produce their own comics.
Lee saw an opportunity to offer something different to a small group of passionate students. She asked Kayes if he wanted to co-teach, and he gladly accepted.
“I felt like we had more artistic talent in the department than we were tapping with our current courses,” she said. “I’m blown away by these students and their talent.”
Click on each image to view the comic “Not Quite Human” by Taylor Scott.
The course is offered as one of the department’s directed research groups – smaller, less structured classes that let students explore some aspect of research. Other courses offered this quarter include “Coming to America: Designing an Online Community for Immigrants,” “Mobile App Design for Preschoolers” and “Tracking the Online Spread of Misinformation after Disaster Events.”
The class of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral-level students began fall quarter by brainstorming ways to describe human-centered design and learning drawing skills and techniques. Then, students started graphically organizing their ideas with characters and drawing comic panels, choosing topics that relate to their experience with the field, Kayes said.
“My biggest motivation for trying to introduce college students to comics is what I call the ‘journalist’s dilemma’ – how much do you simplify your work to make it interesting?” said Kayes, who works as a software developer in his day job. “It’s about how to take what academics and researchers discover and present it in a way that’s still true to the science, but also very entertaining, accessible and connected to the public.”
The last part of the class covers the practical aspects of publishing a book and sharing it with others.
At a recent class, students laid out their nearly finished, hand-drawn comic pages in a circle around the room. They walked the room, scanning each artist’s work for readability, text size and flow, offering feedback before final drafts are due and the pages are sent to the publisher.
They also shared the main themes of their comics – breaking interdisciplinary boundaries, navigating the first year of a doctoral program, the importance of group work, to name a few – trading ideas on the order of the book and how a reader might perceive the content.
“In a way, even the process of making a comic is a very human-centered design process in itself,” Lee said.
Students were given freedom in choosing the topics for their comic strips, as long as they described some aspect of human-centered design. Ahmer Arif, a first-year doctoral student, chose to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the field with a takeoff on Leonardo da Vinci, who represents scholarship in multiple domains, he said.
Arif, who is from Pakistan, said explaining to family and friends what he’s studying is difficult. He was attracted to the class because he wants to find creative ways of describing his new studies.
“Comics should be a great visual medium to explain the field. There was a playfulness I wanted to indulge in,” he said.
Lee plans to offer the course again and hopes it will be a reoccurring option for students.
Click on each image to view the comic “The Marvelous Hipster Da Vinci” by Ahmer Arif.