Thinkpublic Comic

For a while now I’ve been intrigued by the idea of using sequential art to communicate service encounters. I’ve designed simple storyboards that marry word and image, but the crew at thinkpublic have gone a step further and put together a fantastic proof-of-concept in the form of a three page comic [PDF 8MB] showing an entire service encounter at Argos.

I only have a few quibbles with thinkpublic’s approach.

The first is philosophical. If you’re showing a service encounter and aiming to demonstrate how Argos provide a service for their customers then you’ve got to show a bit of the backstage process. I know this is basically a customer journey map focused on the customer’s perspective, but it would have been nice to include a panel or two showing how Argos process the orders.

The second critique has to do with craft. I routinely use photographs (both original and stock) as a starting point for my storyboards, but I never use them raw. For one thing, it’s difficult to capture retail photos that look good without proper lighting and without dressing the location. The images in thinkpublic’s comic are descriptive, but lackluster. The other problem with photographs is that they capture too much detail. It’s hard to focus the visual storytelling with such a uniform degree of detail throughout the image. Photographs also communicate a degree of finish that isn’t always appropriate, particularly if you’re only trying to communicate a potential service.

Instead, I’ve been experimenting with ways to use photographs as starting points for lower-fidelity sketches, filtered through Photoshop. Professional illustrators frown on this technique because photographic compositions tend to be more stilted than hand-drawn artwork but I’ve found that this technique at least helps screen out visual clutter and makes the images seem more cohesive. Compared to photographs, the result is also more in keeping with the visual style of comic art.

I thought I’d try applying this technique to the thinkpublic comic to demonstrate the difference. Here’s my revised artwork, based on their original photographs.


Two of the best books for learning the tropes of sequential art are Understanding Comics and Making Comics, both by Scott McCloud. For putting together the panels and adding the lettering, I’d recommend Comic Life. It comes pre-installed on most Macs, so you probably have it already.

One day I’d like to commission original artwork for a service design comic, but this will do in a pinch.

  1. Hi Jeff,
    Great find, I completely agree, and the photoshop approach is a great little tool. Concept sketch’s must lack resolution, to allow the designer the room to start making mental models of where to improve and change – the wobbly lines are key. Bill Buxton has some memorable passages on the need for wobbly lines, and how the move from wobbly to firm line is a vital part of the design process. Check out his Excellent book ‘sketching user experiences’:

  2. Jeff

    Buxton’s book is great; I waited entirely too long to read it. In this case, the pseudo-wobbly lines are more for the client’s benefit than the designer. They’re mostly about managing expectations, since the “sketches” aren’t really sketches in the traditional sense. They’re a presentation tool rather than a thinking tool.

  3. Yes, you’re right. This approach is more presentational. What are the ‘wobbly lines’ of service design though? It varies of course by touchpoint – some touchpoints have a more traditional wobbly line process (designing an interior), but some are much harder, for example a proposal for a new ‘host’ or customer service person. In the past I’ve used writing combined with simple illustration and acting out roles with colleagues, but it pretty quickly just descends into a job descripton/person spec. Another interesting case is ‘proposition. Again, in the past I’ve just used iterations of text (to good effect), sometimes iconographic systems, and often some form of visual framework. No answers here, just more questions…

  4. Jeff

    Exploring the wobbly lines for service design has the potential for a whole other post. Good food for thought.

  5. Thanks for the post Jeff, I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this and your version of the storyboard.

    This storyboard was designed to give quick overview of the elements that make up a service for the customer and was never meant to show the full service and it’s workings. I agree it would have been interesting to show the ‘back end’ however it was not appropriate for the workshop we were running.

    I understand your point about making the images clearer but the idea for this work was to quickly show what it’s like to experience a service from the customer’s point of view. Our experience of working with NHS staff has taught us that photos of real experiences rather than sketches or interpretations of these are more engaging.

    At thinkpublic we often use tools such as this to help explain or introduce workshop activities, it’s important that they are simple, easy to understand and also based in reality as we are often working with people who are working in existing services rather that ‘potential ones’.

  6. Jeff

    Fair enough; I can see the argument for using photographs for existing services, and I’ve used them myself on projects in the past where it seemed appropriate.

    One of the reasons I started experimenting with the sketching approach for potential services is that since the services don’t yet exist, there’s often nothing to photograph. I can usually pull together stock photos supplemented with a bit of original photography to outline a basic story, but it’s obvious that the photos don’t match. They come from different locations and use different models. The sketching technique helps to mask those differences so the story feels more cohesive.

  7. Erick

    Hey Jeff,

    Great blog, I’ve been reading your stuff for a while. I’ve noticed that my colleague Nick (I work at Engine too! ) posted a few comments, we are both fans of using comics to communicate ideas.
    Another great read is the ‘The adventures of Johny Bunko’ – a manga style book about career advice:


  8. Jeff

    Thanks for the link Erick, and thanks for reading.

    I suppose in the interest of being complete, I should also include a link to Google’s recent use of the comic book format to introduce their Chrome web browser.

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