Office Hours: Drawing a daily comic strip with Visio

David Salaguinto January 28, 2008

David Salaguinto

Learn how a writer for Microsoft Office Online uses Visio in a cool and creative way to have fun and connect with readers.

Applies to
Microsoft Office Visio 2007

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Microsoft Office gets used in a lot of places besides the office. Script writers use Word to write scripts — when they're not on strike. David Byrne uses PowerPoint to create art about … using PowerPoint. And project managers use Project to create detailed and elaborate schedules based on pure fantasy and science fiction. It should come as no surprise then to discover that someone has started using Visio to draw a daily comic strip.

What is surprising, though, is when that someone turns out to be me.

You see, I'm not an artist, but a few months back, a colleague of mine had this funny idea (funny "strange," not funny "ha-ha"). What if, in addition to articles, columns, videos, and online training, we started producing comics for our readers? I know. Silly, right? But before I could laugh long and hard at her expense, I was suddenly volunteering to create the comics using Visio. I blame the fumes from the Sharpie I was holding.

As it turns out, it's both fun and easy to draw comics using Visio. If I can do it, anyone can.

It takes all shapes and sizes

Now, when I say "draw," I don't actually mean draw. I'm not an artist, remember? When I say "draw," I really mean "cobble together using the shapes and tools Visio provides."

If you're going to use Visio to produce a comic, the first choice you have to make is which shapes to use. Luckily, Visio has many thousands of shapes to choose from. For the characters in my comic, I eventually narrowed my choices down to two:

Person shapes

I decided to go with the second one, the User shape from the Network and Peripherals stencil. There was no particular reason. I just thought it looked funny, which I figured had to be a good thing for a comic.

I also wanted a nice collection of computer shapes to round out my comic, so I decided to use the computer shapes on the Computer and Monitors stencil:

Computer shapes

The second and third choices you have to make have to do with size and layout. Here's where things suddenly get serious and geeky.

Where will the comic get published? What constraints does that imply? How many pixels will you have to work with?

I originally intended my comics to appear here on Office Online. That implied that the comics could be no more than 400 pixels wide in order to fit inside our templates. Most comic strips have four panels laid out horizontally:

4 panels laid horizontally

But as you can see, that would make each panel pretty small. Even three panels laid our horizontally would be too small:

3 panels laid horizontally

I experimented with four panels laid out vertically, but it seemed unnatural, so I compromised and settled on a 2 x 2 layout:

4 panels arranged 2 by 2

Finally, I had to figure out how to make my comics 400 pixels wide. Pixels aren't a unit of measurement in Visio, so I had to do some math. On my monitor, there are 96 pixels per inch. 400 divided by 96 equals 4.166, which means I had to set my page size to 4.166 inches wide.

That's where I draw the line

A comic created entirely out of predefined shapes would be pretty boring. You have to draw a few lines at least, even if only for word and thought balloons, which Visio doesn't provide. Fortunately, Visio does provide a basic set of drawing tools and operations. Here's how to draw a word balloon.

First, draw an ellipse using the Ellipse tool:

Ellipse

Next, draw a triangle using the Line tool:

Ellipse and triagle

Finally, select both shapes using the Pointer tool, and on the Shape menu, point to Operations, and then click Union:

Word balloon

To add text, just start typing. To re-center the text, use the Text Block tool:

Word balloon with text

I eventually decided to just go with simple speech lines instead of word balloons because, well, I'm lazy:

Example speech line

Putting in a good word

Not being an artist means I have to focus on the words. It's not that easy making someone laugh with just four little panels. Over the past few months (in Internet time, that makes me a grizzled veteran), I've learned a few things that I'd like to pass on.

First, you don't have to start a strip at the beginning. It's OK to start a strip in the middle of a conversation:

Example comic

Readers can pretty easily figure out what's happening on their own.

Second, jokes are just a way to surprise the reader with an unexpected twist or perspective:

Example comic

The more you can misdirect the reader in the first three panels, the better.

And lastly, a lot of humor comes from our shared fears and insecurities. Playing on those is what gives a daily comic its "bite":

Example comic

Never pass up an opportunity to point out stupidity.

It's all about you

I started drawing comics with Visio hoping to have some fun. In fact, it's been so much fun that I almost feel guilty, and there's no reason you shouldn't share in that guilt. With that in mind, I've made the Visio template I use to draw my comics available for download. You can find a link to it on my webcomic, Office Offline.

By now, you know most of what you need to know to draw your own comics. If you do draw your own, please let me know (you can e-mail me from my site). I'd love to either post them on my site or link to them on yours. You might even turn out to be good at it. Who knows? You could surprise yourself, kind of like I did.

About the author

David Salaguinto is a writer on the Office User Assistance team at Microsoft. For the past 8 years, he's worked on various versions of Visio, including Visio 2000, 2003, and 2007. Before Visio, he was a programmer writer for Microsoft Research, a marketing writer for Spectrum Controls, and a technical editor for Paccar Technical Center. When he's not writing, he's trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters. David's comic, Office Offline, debuted on October 18, 2007.

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