UX design and the legacy of Hergé

UX design and the legacy of Hergé

Hergé (real name Georges Remi), Tintin’s creator, was a master at storytelling. I visited the Musée Hergé in Belgium a while back and it brought back the boyish wonder I felt all those years ago. Seeing his original sketches and learning about the background of the characters was a treat. It made me think how his vision, style and craftsmanship relate to my profession of UX design.

1. Craft your content

This one is obvious, but it requires spelling out: content > design. The design needs to be in service of the content, so work on the story first. Hergé always wrote a two to three page synopsis before putting drawing pencil to paper.

2. Page-turners: scroll on

Once Hergé had the full story figured out, the difficult part followed: filling the pages and panels. This was still not about style, but about content. He needed to figure out how to keep the attention of the reader. To do so, he constructed many of his pages in a way that built up the tension to the first panel of the next page. He made sure you wanted to turn the page, over and over again until the end of the book.

The page-turner
The page-turner

On the internet, the infrastructure is not as set as with comic books. We don’t have a fixed amount of panels on each page, instead we have the possibility to scroll on forever. But the basic mechanics are still in play: as designers, we need to create moments of interest, suspense, tension and gratification to keep the user’s attention.

3. Try, fail, and try again.

It can be very tempting to go with your first idea or to be happy with your first sketch. Hergé never was. This is what he said about his process: “With all the energy I can muster, I draw, I modify, I erase, and I start again, until I’m satisfied. Then, frame by frame, I trace all the drawings. This means that among all those lines that are intermingled, I choose the one which seems to me the best… All while trying to keep the spontaneity, freshness, and energy of the first sketch.”

There are more similarities between UX design and drawing comics than you might expect
There are more similarities between UX design and drawing comics than you might expect

The key is to keep trying to surprise yourself, dare to step out of your comfort zone and try to break out of the design paradigms in your head. I had to think of Hergé’s words when I read this nice article about how to get the most out of your wireframes.

4. The clear line

Hergé is famous for his drawing style, dubbed ‘de klare lijn’ (the clear line). He didn’t afford himself many frivolities: He established a couple of basic starting points and stuck with them. No big changes in thickness of the lines, no color gradients, no hatched lines. The approach was always consistent, this allowed him to focus on the narrative. Hergé liked to point out that his style was nothing more than a vehicle for the story.

A trap I fell into as a young designer, was to start working without having set any boundaries or rules. As a result, I used to struggle with my designs. I knew they weren’t quite finished yet, but I couldn't exactly figure out why. So I would move stuff around, change some colors and font sizes until I stumbled upon something that felt (more) right.

I learned that rules and boundaries are essential. They help me pull off a consistent style and allow me to focus on achieving the goals of the website, rather than keep muddling around with design assets. Incoherence comes easy when you have no limitations. Setting confinements can give you the necessary push to find that creative solution.

Decades after the last book came out, Tintin and Hergé continue to be an inspiration for me. Their lessons still ring true, no matter the medium. We can all use a little Tintin in our lives.

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Hugo Kalf - Managing Director

Small ideas at the Cannes Lions