What can cartoonists teach engineers?

Cartoonist Paul Karasik may be best known for his single-panel work in The New Yorker, but he’s also a renowned educator who teaches courses such as Applied Comics at the Rhode Island School of Design and the man who — along with co-author Mark Newgarden — has written the seminal work on “How to Read Nancy,” an in-depth study of a single “Nancy” comic strip revealing the hidden lexicon of comics’ language.

It’s this scholarly approach to comic design that Karasik brought to a workshop at the Moody Center for the Arts and subsequent lecture at the Rice Media Center Feb. 13. The critic came to campus to share his expertise with engineering students as part of an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration between the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts (VADA) and the Department of Bioengineering.

“We’re doing a lot more with comics on campus, with Professor Jane Grande-Allen in Bioengineering,” said VADA Associate Professor Chris Sperandio. “She and I wrote an engineering grant to bring comic book artists to Rice to work with engineering students and to help them figure out how to successfully combine words and pictures.” As a longtime comic artist and collector, Sperandio appreciates the technical skill required to transmit large amounts of information in small spaces.

“When I met Chris two or three years ago, he brought up using comics to help undergraduate science and engineering students to do a better job presenting their data and making more aesthetically pleasing posters,” said Grande-Allen, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor of Bioengineering and chair of the Department of Bioengineering. “Right now we’re piloting this with bioengineering majors and global health minors, and then ultimately we hope to expand it to other engineering classes as well as the natural sciences.”

Cartoonist and critic Paul Karasik taught a workshop to undergraduate engineering students Feb. 13 at the Moody Center for the Arts.

Cartoonist and critic Paul Karasik taught a workshop to undergraduate engineering students Feb. 13 at the Moody Center for the Arts. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

During his workshop inside an airy classroom at the Moody Center, Karasik broke down the surprising amount of technical detail behind a single “Nancy” comic strip and dissected the narrative structure of a Carl Barks-composed Donald Duck story before giving the engineering students a challenge of their own: Plot out the action of a four-tier, six-panel Donald Duck tale using a basic story script. The cartoonist stressed the fact that taking a creative, visually based approach to conveying information can mean the difference between an engineering poster that gets bogged down in the minutiae and a poster that effectively communicates its project in a crisp and compelling way.

“In your work, you’ve got all these different tools at your disposal,” Karasik said. “And you kind of always reach for the same one because it’s right there. But in fact, you don’t necessarily need to. You’ve got a wide range of options, a wide range of materials — the possibilities for solutions are endless. So just stop for a moment and think about, ‘What could I change here? What could I do differently here?’”

Video by Brandon Martin

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.