Comic conventions: understanding how people gather information conveyed jointly through word and image

Funder: ESRC

Words and images are frequently used together to communicate information to the viewer, in signs, instruction manuals, adverts and comics. Despite this, much research has focused on how we gather information from words or images alone. In this project, we aim to further our understanding of how we gather information from both sources, using the medium of comics and the method of eye-tracking.

Not only do comics convey their stories via word and image combinations, there are established theories and rules underpinning how these combinations are presented from influential figures such as Will Eisner and Scott McCloud. Writers and artists follow (or break) these rules to influence the reader’s experience and understanding of the story. Using these theories as a base, we can explore for the first time whether the ideas they propose are borne out by the reader’s experiences.

Eye-tracking allows us to follow a reader’s eye-movements as they view a comic page. We can determine which areas catch their attention and hold it, if they need to re-read areas that seem unclear, and how they may divide their attention between words and images within the panels. By combining these measures with the reader’s reports of their enjoyment of the comics, we hope to gain a better understanding of the comic reader’s experience, and how comic conventions may be best employed to increase their involvement and enjoyment in the story on the page.

egs of heat maps
Heat maps produced by two readers viewing the same page from It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken by Seth

We have already been active at comics events in Dundee, including the ‘Spirit of Scotland’ event (part of the Dundee Comics Expo celebrating the anniversary of Will Eisner’s visit to Scotland) and Dee-Con, Dundee’s student created anime and comics convention.

IMG_0443 A participant is calibrated for eye-tracker at the Spirit of Scotland event


The Joker gives up his valuable time to participate in our study at Dee-Con


Video of a participant being tracked while reading Anthology Fivethe latest volume of work by students from the Dundee Comics Studies course and DJCAD’s Graphic Design and Illustration course

Follow us on Twitter @activevisionlab for further updates and announcements for future events

This project is funded by the ESRC and is run jointly by Ben Tatler, Chris Murray (School of Humanities) and Phillip Vaughan (DJCAD) with Clare Kirtley as the postdoc.



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