Small Multiples – Sample Post by Kristin Becker

2-page spread from Craig Thompson's graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice (pgs. 58-59, Top Shelf Productions, 1999)

2-page spread from Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice (pgs. 58-59, Top Shelf Productions, 1999)

This 2-page spread from Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice demonstrates many of the issues regarding small multiples and words, numbers, and images—together raised by Edward Tufte. Over the course of 120 pages, the graphic novel uses small multiples (a series of frames we are accustomed to seeing when reading comics) to convey a complex story involving multiple characters and locations (so it is indeed bountiful with data, aka information). In this sequence (pgs. 58-59), the arrangement of visual information within separate frames, as well as the overall relationship of the frames to one another, does an excellent job of enforcing comparison, difference and scope, building a complex and beautiful narrative. The two larger image frames at the beginning and end of the double-page spread allow the viewer/reader to make a comparison and therefore to understand the location of the turtle character within a wider environment, as well as a more intimate one: When you compare the last image to the first you understand that the turtle is on the deck of the ship, which is in turn floating at night on a vast and lonely expanse of water. Additionally, the specific sequence of smaller frames tells a story, or gives insight into a scope of time: The viewer is easily able to compare the frames to one another to understand the actions and thoughts of the turtle as he rummages in his bag, attempts to read his compass, and then is distracted by the dinner bell. The artist/author succeeds in providing larger context while also telling many details, all within one eyespan, which is one of Tufte’s main conditions for a successful small multiples visualization.

Tufte also says that small mutiples should emphasize “change of data, not changes in data frames”. Though the scale changes in the frames of Goodbye, Chunky Rice are noticeable, they are in service of the information. Arguably, the author would not be able to convey as complex a story if he did not utilize the various frame sizes. The presentation adds even more visual understanding when one of the larger frames merges and overlaps with content from a smaller frame at the top right corner of the spread: The ship’s bell tower continues from the larger frame below and also inhabits the smaller frame, while the combined verbal/visual representation of the ringing bell (DING, DING, DING) connects the reader to the narrative of the turtle which is approaching from the left side of the page. The frame divisions in this graphic novel may not be silent, but they are certainly not disruptive.

Finally, it is important to note that the graphic novel uses multiple modes to communicate its story, and it does so with excellent word-image integration. As noted above, the verbal presentation of the words DING DING DING DING are also highly visual: They connect three separate frames of the story and they are hand-drawn using large letters which seem visually connected to the sound of loud, ringing bell. In contrast, the cursive text at the bottom of the same page has a more timid visual presence, telling us the meaning of the bell signal (cognitive meaning), but also communicating the turtle character’s uncertainty (optical meaning). As Tufte notes, word-image integration tends to happen more naturally in items like comics and sketchbooks, where all elements are drawn/written by hand.

This entry was posted in Fall 2014 Archive (338), Sample Posts by Your Professor and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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