SXSW 2013: Learning Experience Design from Superman

Timothy Parcell
Manager Experience Design

Presentation Description

A geek’s breakdown of the history of comic books and the parallels and principles to modern experience design.

From their shared roots in the 1930s and 40s, with Siegel and Shuster’s Superman ushering in a Golden Age and Chapanis and Fitts establishing the field of experience design through their efforts to redesign airplane cockpits to consider human factors through more modern milestones like Watchmen, Y: The Last Man, Dyson Vacuums and the iPhone, the two fields have helped shaped our culture.

And while Norman coined the term ‘user experience’ and Nielsen has educated many designers on usability, Lee, Kirby and Eisner can certainly give lessons that any experience designer can apply to their next project to make it more engaging and memorable.

Explore the worlds of the Uncanny X-Men, Spirit, Green Lantern, Zappos and to discover that while the mediums are different, the fun and design are not.

Presentation Notes

How do you define experience design? The craft of building lasting relationships between people and brands. Information Architecture, user experience, usability, research, etc. are all different parts.


A brand cannot just be a symbol and icon. It must as well have values behind it. What are the values of the brand itself, of the people who buy the brand, and how do we tie those two together?


One image can say a lot to a person. When you talk about design, you need to talk about the medium. In terms of mediums with comics, it is paper. With the Hulk, original printing presses would skew the color of him so much that sometimes he would be gray, black, brown, etc. It wasn’t until later that they decided to make him his iconic Green.

Stories and Themes

In experience design you look at how to engage, and how you engage in design. Experience design extends beyond just web design, because you need to look at how people view your product. Stories have memory moments, such as “with great powers, comes great responsibilities.”


Film makes you a spectator. Comics make you a participant. Comic books were one of the first medias to publish feedback from users in the back of the comics. In the 1980s DC took it even further and opened up two 1-800 lines and asked if Robin should die in the end or not. Fans didn’t actually think that DC was going to follow through on it, but Robin died.

Today, typical comic book readers are 18-35 years old. We need to take that into consideration with who is our target audience. On a bell curve you can see that there are new people on one spectrum, and nerds on the other. Somewhere in between, the most users of Comics, are everyone else. You need to target your largest audience, but don’t neglect the new people or the nerds.


How does a system grow over time? Not very often do we have something that just stays the same size. The first Green Lantern (1940) had a horrible costume. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a new Green Lantern look and feel was released (the most iconic). Change is risky. Change is colorful. Change is violent. Change is fast.


Things kind of remain the same, starting with one point and slowly changing instead of completely starting over. What can I do where? Target your audiences for each medium, but try and keep a continuity between them all. What does the audience expect at any given time? You’ll want to attract to experts on the bell curve by giving them easter eggs. For  the new people you’ll want it to still be usable.


Everything in comics has to work, or else it fails. We need to know how our customers feel.

  • Make your brand stand for something
  • Get the details right
  • Tell a great story
  • Make it simple
  • Make it for your audience
  • Know your medium(s)
  • Don’t be afraid to start over
  • Have fun
Posted in SXSW 2013.

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