Unbound: Design matters

Today’s topic is not webcomics themselves but the spaces around them.

A webcomic, by definition, exists on a website, and that website can be a valuable tool to set the tone of a comic, add context, and provide a smooth, pleasant reading experience.

Or not.

I am constantly amazed at the number of creators who work hard to make a good comic and then put it on a generic, poorly designed website that screams "amateur," or worse, drives the reader away with clumsy navigation.

Design affects readers on an unconscious level. A tightly designed website has an aura of its own that can rub off on the comic and make it seem better than it really is—and a poorly designed site has the same effect in reverse.

It’s a tough world out there, and you want to stack the deck in your favor as much as possible. That means everything on a webcomics site should work to enhance the comic, and anything that doesn’t should be ruthlessly eliminated.

Herewith, then, is a short list of webcomics dos and don’ts.

DON’T hide your comic. This should be obvious, but a lot of webcomics fail this basic test: When I go to the front page of your domain, I should see your comic. Similarly, if I click on your Project Wonderful ad, it should go right to the comic. Not your blog, because I won’t care about your blog until I read your comic. Not your latest avatars, a picture of your desk, or a pitch for T-shirts. Just the comic. Or, at the very least, a large, very obvious link to it. If I can’t find it, I can’t read it.

DON’T center a vertical string of boxes on a page that's too big for them. For some reason, this is the default design on a lot of webcomics host sites like Drunk Duck and Modern Tales: A bunch of tiny navigation boxes, blinking banner ad, another blinking banner ad, title, drop-down menu, navigation arrows, the comic itself (finally!) another drop-down menu, more navigation arrows, comments, more links, blinky ad, all swimming in a sea of empty space, usually tinted gray or a sickly pastel color. Don't be that guy. Either customize the page or, better yet, get your own domain.

DO format your comic to fit comfortably on a screen. As Scott McCloud pointed out almost a decade ago, computer screens are horizontal. Don’t fight that.

Being forced to scroll down to read the bottom half of the page is distracting and annoying. It never really becomes as automatic as turning a page, because you have to scroll, reorient yourself, click to the next page, reorient again… On a poorly designed website, it’s enough to kick you out of the story.

But horizontal orientation is not enough. Take Kitty Hawk, a fine webcomic that I enjoy reading very much. The creators switched from vertical to horizontal format recently, but because there is so much … stuff… over the comic, I still have to scroll down to read it. It’s actually more annoying than the vertical format because my payoff for the scrolling is smaller—about an inch of the comic.

Zuda, on the other hand, has the right idea—format the comic to fit the screen. Their only requirement is that the works fit a specified aspect ratio; creators are still free to do three-panel strips or double-page spreads or whatever format fits their fancy, but the end result fills the screen in a satisfying way. And it’s easy to read.

DON’T allow animated ads. I know I just mentioned this, but I might as well belabor the point. Your website is the setting for your work, and anything that takes away from your comic is a negative. An animated ad is like a gnat flying around between me and the computer, except I can swat the gnat.

And while we're on the subject: Ads are a part of your site, so keep an eye on them and maintain tight control. I have seen a porn ad on the site of an all-ages webcomic, and I have banned an ad from my own blog on the grounds that it was so ugly it interfered with the design. At best, a bad ad is a distraction; at worst, it could get you in hot water. So don't pretend they are not there, no matter how tempting that may be.

DO make your archives easy to navigate. Calendars and drop-down menus, especially ones that only give a list of page numbers, are useless. A good archives page will help me find a specific page or story arc and hopefully allows me to view several comics on a single page, so I don’t have to click the “next” button 5,000 times. I like it when the archives are arranged chapter by chapter, like Alex Kolesar and Joseph Kovell do for No Need for Bushido. Even better is a creator like Meredith Gran, who provides a very nice story guide to Octopus Pie, with a brief description of setting and characters and a link to each story arc. Brad Guigar has some suggestions for making a good “About” page.

DON’T use white or neon type on a black background. It’s not 1995 any more, and it didn't look cool even then.

DO strive for good graphic design: This is one of those things that is difficult to explain but instantly recognizable on the screen: Too much empty space around the edges, too little space between a block of type and the border, poor choice of typefaces, clashing colors, clutter. Anyone can put together a functional web page, but it take special skill to make it look good. If you don’t have that skill, hire a designer to put together a template for you. Or just use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme and tweak it a bit.

This is just the short list. Joel Fagin offers some excellent advice, including a primer on image formats, in this tutorial, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is setting up a webcomic site.

Just as book designers fuss over cover designs, paper quality, and page margins, webcomics creators should be thinking about the best setting for their work. It's harder, because the web presents more choices, but it's a vital marketing tool, and ignoring it does your webcomic a serious disservice.

(Animated GIF from Andy's Animated Gif Archive.)

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