Want To Spark Innovation? Think Like A Cartoonist

Matthew May gets drawn in by the insights of comics theorist Scott McCloud–and you will too.

Want To Spark Innovation? Think Like A Cartoonist

On a typically warm Southern California weekend in February, 20 of us are gathered at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art for a two-day seminar called “Making Comics.” I’m not a cartoonist, but neither is half the class: There are teachers, engineers, architects, consultants, writers, editors, technologists, musicians, and one 14-year-old wunderkind of an aspiring graphic novelist.


We all have at least three things in common: a desire to tell better stories, a love of imagery and visual thinking, and a fascination with the imagination. We aren’t alone in our fascination. Each year nearly 150,000 people attend Comic-Con, the premier event for comics passionistas, manga mavens, anime auteurs, and graphic novel aficionados.

“Imagination is the mortar that holds comics together,” says the instructor, who is a staple at Comic-Con. “The true art is invisible.” He should know, as his seminal 1993 graphic treatise on the subject, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, remains the definitive treatise on the theory and art of comics.

His name is Scott McCloud, and he had me at “imagination.” In 2008, Scott created a comic book for Google as a guide to its then-new open source browser, Google Chrome. The comic itself became an Internet phenomenon when it shipped ahead of the browser–for two days it was the only source of information about Chrome. The New York Times said it was “akin to hiring Paul McCartney to write a jingle.”

Scott McCloud Character

Three weeks earlier, I had spent the afternoon with Scott, and my interview with him had convinced me that I needed to experience further some of the things we discussed. I wanted to know more about the magic of this “invisible art.”

Three days with Scott McCloud will turn your head around.

Scott launched the workshop by giving us five minutes to draw this story: “A man is walking down the sidewalk, whistling. He meets an elephant. The elephant has a cell phone. The elephant hands the cell phone to the man. The man thanks the elephant and walks off a cliff.”


The story is random for a reason. Scott wants to see how you tell a story you’re not familiar with, one that has no context.

“What matters is clarity,” says Scott. “And clarity depends on the choices you make. You must make five key choices when showing and telling any story: choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image, choice of word, and choice of flow. That’s it.”

From a leadership perspective, choice of moment is perhaps the most critical in creating clarity. Choice of moment is about deciding which moments to include in the story and which to leave out. “So much of it is about editing,” Scott says. “You can spew, but you have to edit. Pull out the long knives, folks. William Faulkner had it right when he said that in writing stories, you have to kill your darlings.”

And as for the “invisible art,” we learned that the magic and mystery of comics does not live in what is drawn. Rather, it is the “gutter”–the white space between the frames–that holds the secret. There is nothing in the space between, yet it’s here where the real action occurs. It’s here that the reader is drawn in and engaged, because it’s here that the story is left open to interpretation. It’s here that attention is focused, here that the imagination is sparked. So it’s here that the real story takes place.

The reader’s experience produced by the space between is what fascinates him, as it does me. “Whatever the mysteries within each panel,” Scott says, “it’s the power of closure between the panels that I find the most interesting. There’s something strange and wonderful that happens in this blankness.”

What I’m really after, though, is an understanding of how to apply the concept of the gutter and audience participation in a nonliteral way to engage people’s imaginations. For example, in an organization. So I ask the question.


“Well,” Scott begins thoughtfully, “In organizations, leaders who are able to lead people to a conclusion without spelling it out are practicing something very much like the gutter. If you think of the typical org chart where ideas flow from the top, that’s the more didactic conception. If you have instead an organizational structure where there’s inspiration that encourages the flow of ideas upward from the base, you might be looking at something more analogous to audience participation. More analogous to what we’re trying to create with comics.”

That seems to prompt another thought from him: “There’s a compelling theory in video gaming about the secret to games–that games are about the abdication of authorship. What makes it a game, whether it’s chess or Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto, is that the user feels as if they are the authors of their own experiences. There is a school of thought in gaming too of this notion of story and imposing stories upon games: With the story comes the author, and if there’s a tension because the creator is trying to impose a story on the user, you begin to lose some of the character of what makes games ‘games’ in the first place.”

The author of their own experience. I see the application to innovation and leadership in organizations right away, but Scott’s on a roll and I’m not about to stop him.

“When the user feels empowered to create their own experience,” he continues, “they don’t come away from the game talking about what someone made; they come away from that experience telling others ‘what I did.’ They’re the star of that story. And it is the understanding of the nature of gaming that allows the gamer to create something more pure. It’s that sense of user agency, that people create their own narratives. It’s much more natural, much more organic, much more like a game from when you were playing on the playground as a kid.”

What a great insight: The art of limiting information is really about letting people write their own story, which becomes much more engaging and powerful because they’ve invested their own intelligence and imagination and emotion.

And isn’t that something great innovators, great leaders, and great companies all seem to be able to do?


Matthew E. May is author of The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill), from which this story was adapted. You can follow him @MatthewEMay.

[Image: Flickr user TMAB2003]