The rage, when it comes to design fiction, is to make a film. The examples of this abound, not only the best diegetic prototypes from Blade Runner, Minority Report and 2001, that really started us thinking about this stuff, but also the recent presentations by Microsoft, Corning or Sony. In fact, with each new sic-fi or super-hero blockbuster there is some element of design fiction that is woven into the narrative. Tony Stark’s high tech lab with it’s holographic, gesture interfaces, is really just a “one-up” of John Anderton’s pre-cog version. The heart implant, however, doesn’t qualify so much since it is rather removed from the trending or plausible science of today.
In my last post I listed two things that I believe are essential to qualify as design fiction. The first was that you have to make something, visualize it or prototype it. The second qualification is that you have to throw it into the background as a tool, and not fetishize it (to use Bleecker’s term). It’s much more about how the people use it and their interaction with it, than how incredibly cool it might look (which is OK, but it’s about the human drama first). If there is a third, then I think the design itself must be based on some thread of science or research that can be pulled out in such a way that, in theory, the thing could work.
Whether the authors, screenwriters, or production designers on these film did rigorous research before creating these visions, is not as important as whether the thought of plausibility was there, or whether it was pure fantasy, e.g.“OK, he will need little rockets in his boots so that he can fly.” Not that there’s anything wrong with little rockets in the boots, I think they’re cool, but they are not design fiction — in my book.
So what does that have to do with a graphic novel?
This brings us to the title of the post. Why does a graphic novel do this better than a movie. First of all, I would not presume to say that it does it better. It does, however provide some interesting advantages that a film does not. The idea of sequential art that links story pictures (panels) in sequence to move the action forward, shares some obvious similarities to film, but it pretty much stops there. The distinction most frequently cited is what we call the “gutter”, the space between the panels that requires the reader to “fill in”. Most film marches forward in linear fashion delineating in perfect detail, all that is contained in one scene. Unless we grab the remote step-frame our way through, the film is designed to flow over us. The graphic novel, on the other hand, can show you as you turn the page, what is about to happen, and unless you are way more disciplined than I, you are likely to glance at the last image on the page before you read all of the images leading up to it. Therefore, as a double-page “spread” lays there in front of you, past, present and future are all displayed at once. Film does not do this. Even with rewind and fast forward, you are locked into the moment. This nuance allows the reader to study the image in a way that a movie audience cannot.
There are some good reasons, I think why this is a particular advantage for design fiction. First, the designed thing or technological idea that is being presented may not be front and center to the story, but it can be studied and lingered upon, before proceeding onward. Second, if the artist puts enough detail into the thing or ethnography into the idea, you can examine the waltz of interaction with the design in the innocuous way it seductively seeps into the background. I believe the this can only be done effectively, if you are able to proceed at your own pace. Once again, I know that you can step your way through a film, but often it lacks both the resolution or the detail to satisfy a deep dive.
In the case of my graphic novel, each scene is created in CG, so everything must be built. The designer is drawn in, perhaps more deeply, to craft the object with sufficient detail that it can be studied. Therefore, not only the size and shape and ergonomics of said design, but the finer details of its materials and functions may also be required. All this adds to the realism, and realism adds a dimension to the visualization and prototyping that combine to allow that item or idea to seem perfectly at home within the scene. I have taken it one step beyond, of course, and made each panel High Def, so that you really can zoom-in and see more; an idea that has already come back to haunt me as I inspect these very large images. “How did that thing get in the shot?”