THE WORLD OF COMIC DESIGN
You could probably go anywhere in the world and be able to find someone with a Superman or Spider-Man symbol emblazoned on their chest. You would be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t know about the origin story of Batman or Captain America. It would probably be difficult to identify someone who hasn’t, at least once in their life, wished they could be Iron Man. Superheroes are everywhere, they mean so much to so many people and personify so much that we love in humanity. And they all started in comic books. These paper and ink creations radically transformed the world of media, character design and storytelling.
More than just the daydreams of a child in bright colours and tights; more than just the preserve of superhero nerds (a title they are completely comfortable with, by the way!); more than just books for people that don’t like words, comic books can be invaluable teachers in the principles of design and public engagement. So many writers and illustrators achieve regularly what designers and marketers attempt everyday. So, here are five lessons from the world of comic design.
THE BIRTH OF A HERO
Every hero has an origin story. For Superman it was the destruction of, and his escape from, Krypton; for Batman, it was the murder of his parents; for Captain America it was the Year One, Part One tumult of the Second World War, the onslaught of a Nazi-backed cult called Hydra and the chance to do his duty. Part of what makes superheroes so relatable, despite their god-like powers or enhanced abilities, is the struggle they overcame,the foundations that formed them into the hero they are.
We see this outworked in comic books, not only in the story arcs themselves, but oftentimes in the costumes and character designs. Captain America, for example, is in the red, white and blue of his flag; his chest and shield emblazoned with the star of liberty and, in some renditions, armour reminiscent of the War from which he was conceived. His origin story is all over his character design. This is a principle we can carry into branding. Don’t shy away from including your story into the design, whether that be an ‘established in’ tag or in the colours you choose. Your heritage, your background, your origin story, was fundamental in forming who you are as a company. Use it in your design, let its legacy shine through, bring the customers in on the journey.
SYMBOLISING AN ICON
Everyone instantly recognises the Superman ’S’ symbol. The people of Gotham know, without much thought, that when the Bat signal lights up the night sky, it means help is on the way and all criminals should run and hide. Symbolism is a key aspect in comic design. Without a symbol, you don’t have a superhero. Spider-Man without his spider icon would just be a kid in red and blue long-johns; Aquaman without his trident would just be a half-baked Poseidon dressed up eerily like a carrot; without the terror-inducing skull symbol, the Punisher would just be a violent guy with anger issues. Symbols elevate mere characters into icons. So it is with your branding. Your logo is your symbol, and it is vitally important that it best-represents you and your brand.
Along with representing themselves, the heroes’ symbols also symbolise all they stand for. Superman’s symbol has come to represent power, strength, freedom, and the epitome of good; the Bat symbol represents vengeance, and the personification of retribution. As such, your logo must be able to represent your company and your brand values and principles. When a customer sees your logo, do they automatically think about everything you stand for?
Let’s look at an example. When you see the Apple logo, what comes to mind? Simplicity? Accuracy? Elite design and output? Whatever your feelings towards Apple, the logo conjures exactly what they want you to think of them. Your logo should inspire your customers to think about your values, goals and principles.
FIGHTING FOR THE GOAL
Part of what makes a superhero a hero is that they are always fighting for something. Superman is fighting for the protection of all people, freedom and a better future. Spider-Man is fighting to rid New York of criminals and embody the value of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Every hero has a purpose. What’s yours? One of the very first things you need to identify in your company is your purpose. What are you fighting for? What are you striving to achieve? What difference so you want to make? The answers to these will define your brand. They will become the backbone of your company. They will dictate every decision you make and become foundational to every idea you have. It is crucial that you identify your purpose.
This is also what gives many heroes their longevity. While their costumes, cars, villains or sidekicks might change, evolve and adapt, the hero’s purpose always remains the same. An interesting example of this is Batman. Throughout his near-on 80 year life, Batman has gone through a number of changes in costume, armour and sidekicks. But one thing always remains: he is a force of consequence for all villains and criminals in Gotham. From the days of blue and yellow tights in the 30s to the technologically innovative armour of today, Batman’s ultimate mission has always survived. This is the key. People know that however you dress up the character, the purpose remains the same. So it should be for you. Identify your mission, stand on that sure foundation and never waver.
KRYPTONITE, IN ALL ITS FORMS
Heroes need to be humanised somehow. Even the greatest have their weaknesses. Like Superman and his kryptonite, the quintessential superhero weakness. What we can learn from this is that you need to be fully self-aware. You need to know the potential pitfalls and weaknesses of your brand. So that, on the one hand, you can eradicate anything that might catch you out. On the other, it helps you to better identify who you are not. Spider-Man is a science nerd that talks to himself, cracks jokes and always gets back up. If he tried to copy Deadpool, a violent, foul-mouthed vigilante, he would no longer be Spider-Man.
You have to be yourself, you have to stay in your lane. Yes, you innovate, grow, experiment, try new things, branch out, explore. But never, ever, compromise on who you are and your brand’s core identity. If you start compromising on your identity, your customer base will quickly lose trust. They are loyal to you because they’ve bought into your identity as is.
One of the most shocking examples of this in comic book history was Captain America’s story arc in Secret Empire (2017). In this run, Captain America became the figurehead of Hydra, a force for evil, oppression and tyranny. He had become, to borrow a phrase, the very thing he had sworn to destroy. Now, this might have been fun for the ten-issue comic series, but you cannot afford to do this with your brand. You need to fully understand what you do, and what you don’t do, and make sure you hold fast to that identity.
A fan-favourite moment of any comic book universe is when characters team-up. From the Avengers to the Justice League, there have been some phenomenal group moments in comic book history. What this can teach us is the power and potency of collaboration. What one hero could not defeat alone, a team can. This is what Captain America himself had to say on the issue:
‘A single individual who has the right heart and the right mind, that is consumed with a single purpose… that one man can win a war. Give that one man a group of soldiers with the same conviction, and you can change the world.’ - Captain America, Dark Reign: New Nation (Vol. 1) #1, 2008
Here, the great Captain is encouraging his unit, the Howling Commandos, about the virtue and power of purpose (as we discussed earlier) and the world-changing ability of collaboration. In business and in design, collaboration can be a powerful driver of progress, innovation and creativity. Where one person might have a good idea, input and insight from different minds, areas of expertise, experiences and backgrounds, can make it a great idea. Collaboration is inherent within comic book universes, as it should also be in business and design. Don’t shy away from collaboration; embrace it, enjoy it.
TO SUM UP
Teachers are everywhere, we just need to find them. As such, let’s learn from the long tradition of character development, brand creation and marketing nous that comic book creators have cultivated over the years. Here at Stonefern, we are experts at taking branding theory and making it reality. We can help you to create a brand that stands the test of time and can be named amongst the greatest of superheroes.