Thursday, April 2, 2009

Webcomic Design Challenges

Visiting various webcomics, I often think about them as if they were my site.

What would be my site improvement goals for the next three months? What information am I lacking? Do I see anything that is hurting the site?

The most easily visible issues I see:

  • Design interacting poorly with the webcomic
  • Design interacting poorly with various "stuff" (buttons, widgets, ads, blogs, etc.)
I think design must be page-based or space-based. Qualities of a page-based design:
  • It tends to resemble a page from a book
  • It is mostly flat and the only dynamic areas are links and the occasional widget or blog
  • It tends to favor simplicity
  • It wants readers to read the new strip, and visit the archives, but usually doesn't offer much more
  • Because of the modesty of thematic vision, items that are used "as is" are not considered part of the design scheme. They are part of the array that clutters it up.
Space-based design is more complex, and more ambitious. It relies less on the "web page" notion and more on the numerous qualities the web can bring to comics, which print cannot. Qualities of space-based design may include:
  • Animation. A good example is the walking title character on the home page of Allan . 
  • Dynamic features. Animation is one, but anything that allows viewer to interact with your site in some way is a dynamic feature. So is a logo that alternates among several variations whenever a page is refreshed. Various types of comment mechanisms and blogs are dynamic. Mousing over an "Easter Egg" to reveal hidden material is dynamic. Games, videos, widgets, forums -- they all count.
  • Use of 3D. This can mean 3D rendered art, like in Requiem , or it can be something as simple as surrounding your comic with a frame that's shaded and shadowed to "pop out" from the screen. Mostly, though, it's about texture, and the more a site has it, the more it seems to distance itself from the page approach.
  • Interactivity isn't a monopoly of the "space" approach to site design, but there seem to be far more opportunities than with a page, restricted as it is to links, linked images, polls, and other common stuff.
  • Many home page designs build features like navigation and links to certain internal pages into their design. A good example is Goblins . 

Space oriented design would rarely include all of these, or it would become a big jumble.

Where both design approaches often fall short is that they don't plan for items that will share the page. Sometimes, they don't include the comic. One commenter here said recently that Rocket Llama is among the most cluttered and confusing. I think Rocket Llama deserves time, as a newer webcomic, to find its way, and I hope everyone understands we are making comparisons, not judgments.

There are a lot of site items which can be modified to fit your style. Buttons from are becoming popular. They're easily convertible so you can use your own image instead of theirs. RSS buttons are another example.

The most difficult to manage is advertising, because you have almost no control over what image will appear. But if you move ad boxes down low, their performance drops. I have some ideas about this, but they are too lengthy for today.

Let's be honest. Almost all webcomics have serious deficiencies in design that detract from their effectiveness. This is not based on a highbrow attitude or a personal peeve, it is based on the fact that I am quite certain that if I present some comprehensively planned, well-designed websites and place them next to their current version, most people will pick the new one. They will also talk about it with people, stay longer, participate more and be more exposed to anything you might be selling.

What about the sites hosting the comics I do with Pug? Do they support what I'm saying?

To us, our sites are temporary homes. In time we decided we are happy and want to go forward. You'll find them basic, functional, occasionally flawed, and neither offensive or inspiring. Our project right now is rebuilding and redesigning our sites. We're attempting to incorporate the ideas discussed here, and I'm feeling excited about what's possible with a webcomic site.

People will say they don't mind a reasonable amount of clutter as long as they can find their way and do what they want. I think this is why many webcomics are surviving at a halfway point of design. 

Good design isn't merely the absence of clutter and clashing items, however. It brings in elements like atmosphere, curiosity, and a sense of entering a distinct place. It assists the suspension of disbelief, making it possible to become so absorbed in the story you don't notice the boss standing behind you, tapping her foot.

I am especially interested in hearing about obstacles people face in realizing their ideal site design. Also, what's your take on the design of Ill Will Press?