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Comic Relief
Techniques from the graphic novel that could make life better for academic readers

by Natalia Ilyin

I don’t like reading academic writing. I read a lot of it, but I’m not drawn to it. Much as I may want to get at new ideas, much as I might look forward to new notions or to an interesting twist in criticism, I don’t find myself pulling out a copy of John Toews’s Becoming Historical or Mitchell and Thurtle’s Data Made Flesh when I have 35 minutes to read something on the ferry going home from work.

If it’s a choice between reading Barbara Stafford’s Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images or a fresh new copy of Weight Watchers magazine (featuring luscious grilled vegetable brochettes for summer enter­tain­ing), I’m going to spend my ferry-ride read­­ing about brochettes rather than about develop­ing a positive visual praxis on the inter­pre­tive ruins of linguistic Post­modernism.

All three of the books I mentioned are interesting, difficult books. All three hold much value for a person interested in semiotics or history or culture. But, like so very many academic texts, it’s hard to get at their ideas. All three give me the feeling that I am jackhammering cement in order to get to the soft soil of thinking below the hard crust of formal academic writing.

Jessica Eith’s contemporary “generic designer” shares the page with Walter Gropius, director of the Bauhaus, whose dictum “Start from zero!” became the title of her thesis project.

It’s just plain hard work, separating nuggets of thought from billowing verbosity, and academics seem to like it that way. It makes them feel that their work is demanding, that it is hard to understand and for that reason, valuable. (Sort of like the ’90s idea that making type “hard to read” would intrigue the audience, make them work at deciphering the obscured message, and have them come away with “a larger experience of communication.” Unfortunately, most people came away saying, “weird blob,” and that was the end of the conver­sation, ripe though it had been with Poststructuralist possibility.)

Although people like Carl Jung and Albert Guerard and Marshall Dill and John Gardner, to take a random glance at the bookcase, were somehow able to have wonderful ideas and also write them in lovely, clear prose, these days that’s not considered kosher. Critics of “serious” subjects set the bar too high for true education. I have to pick through words and phrases intended not to clarify an argument, but to buttress the perceived value of the writer as representative of his par­ticular philosophic or critical school. And so do my students. Access to ideas seems to be blocked on purpose: If you do not own the decoder ring, you cannot play. The rose gives forth its perfume only for a reader versed in the com­bi­­na­tion of winks and guarded hand-signals that is much of intellectual writing in the current era. However, a recent glim­mer of light has been thrown upon the page.

Because I love history, I teach the required courses about the history of design to graphic design students at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. I am sure, that, like me, they are not overwhelmingly drawn to much of the reading, which many may view as long-winded tracts about dead people and their once-fresh ideas. I am sure that, given the chance, many of my students would also rather read about brochettes than about the early “masters” of Modern­ism. But they know that hard reading is currently the price of education. You drag in a big, comfy chair, you buy a small, powerful lamp, you turn off the iPhone and you go to work.

Some professors say that studying history is not exciting enough for a generation born after the invention of blue Jell-O, and try to liven things up in a game show/carnival atmosphere.

I can’t bear that kind of thing, and I don’t think my students like it either. They have enough things bonking and beeping and interrupting them, and I think it is a damned relief to some of them just to have an uninterrupted hour of read­ing. But the reading that goes the best seems to be that which relies on narrative rather than intellectual high jinks in order to get its point across. In other words, my students like stories. Ilyin
Natalia Ilyin ( is a designer, writer and teacher whose current research explores the history of the design of persuasion and the construction of the social Self. She has served as director of programs for AIGA New York and has taught at Yale, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Washington. A professor at Cornish College of Fine Arts and one of the founding faculty of Vermont College of the Arts, she also co-directs a refugee relief program that supports community-identified initiatives on the Thai-Burmese border.