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Ideas Development

Comic-Cons and the Art of Teamwork

What do superheroes, cosplay, and podcast teams have in common? They taught me how to be a more creative team member.

We here at NogginLabs take pride in pumping out fun and exciting eLearning, which is why top companies turn to us when they need custom training. How did we become so great at what we do? Is it our college degrees? Only sometimes. Is it because we’ve done it so many times? Kinda. Is it our great sense of fashion? Well, maybe.

In truth, there’s no one answer, since it takes a multitude of experiences coming together to result in great team members. What really matters is the journey each of us has taken to acquire those experiences. Those journeys can be summed up in one short line: jumping head-first into the things we love. You don’t create appealing content, beautiful code, or breathtaking designs just because someone pays you to. You do it because it’s what you love to do. We make awesome training, but it’s only awesome because we, as a team, get in rooms together to share ideas, inspiration, and our passion for creativity with each other.

So where do I find my inspiration? Lots of places, of course, but one of my favorite ways to nurture my creative side is by attending comic book conventions. As it happens, our creative process shares a lot of similarities with comic-con culture.

A Vast Creative Resource

First off, comic book conventions are a fantastic resource for anyone who works on a creative team. I’ve attended a few different ones in the past and most recently went to C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, for my second time. C2E2 is Chicago’s largest annual convention devoted to comics, pop culture, and cosplay. Thousands of people gather at these events to chat, share ideas, and appreciate each other’s work.

They’re made up of a few typical components. There’s always a vast merchandise floor, where attendees stroll along rows of booths lined with vivid art and smiling faces. You’ll find at least a handful of autographing booths, where you can get signatures from your favorite comic book authors and artists, movie stars, cosplayers, and more. My favorite component of comic-cons, however, are the panels, where you get to hear presentations and have conversations with people from across the industry, including local artists, companies like Cards Against Humanity, and big-names like the writers of DC and Marvel comics.

Now, I realize that the world of comics isn’t for everyone. You might be thinking:

I Don’t Want to Wear a Costume, and I Know Nothing about Comics

Fantastic! Then we’re in the same boat. You absolutely don’t need to wear silly costumes to comic-con, although they’re highly encouraged. You can dress as a familiar character, or really as any weird thing that crosses your mind. My go-to costume is a t-shirt and jeans. I also don’t read any comics.

Nevertheless, even if you don’t like to read or write comics, I’ve found that there’s a lot you can learn from people who do. Keeping an open mind about where inspiration and experience can come from is key. If the event you’re going to is large enough, the panels will cover an extremely wide array of topics, from TV shows and movies, to historical fiction novels, to advancements in the tech industry.

This year I listened to a panel of novelists discuss their work in dystopian and utopian fiction. I also attended a panel where writers from ClickHole, the Onion’s site devoted to poking fun of clickbait culture, presented humorous slides about the concept of Panera Bread getting their own mascot, Ronald Panera. There’s something for everyone, and the more famous characters and high-profile companies will be familiar to most attendees.

The Art of Working as a Team

Deciding whether or not you can learn anything useful from events like comic conventions is not as simple as saying, “I’m not a comic book artist, an author, or a sci-fi nerd, so this isn’t relevant to me.” It isn’t only about being part of a fandom. It’s more about understanding the relationships that exist between people across different creative industries. Conventions are an invaluable opportunity to get all of those people in the same room. Hearing from them helps you share ideas and learn, from others’ experience, how to approach and tackle challenges in your own work.

Most comic-cons provide plenty of opportunities to hear from an extremely diverse range of creative people. You’ll find artists who draw comics dealing only in LGBTQ and racial diversity issues, as well as writers who only write comics for elementary education. As NogginLabs instructional designer Matt Trupia says:

[The] goal is to leverage the insight of everyone’s experiences, professionally and personally, to come up with something that’s effective, compelling and new.

One challenge we often face in creative roles is figuring out how to best work as a production team. Each company, and each individual team, typically has its own way of collaborating. Even though we often have project managers to keep us in line, the result is always best when your team understands how to produce together rather than tacking on individual pieces and hoping the glue will stick.

This method of learning to work together is depicted at many comic-cons, where you hear from production teams of all types, sizes, and budgets. From one-man comic creators to 10-person podcast teams, from video games made by a team of 300 to those made by a team of five, they all have an open forum to speak.

At C2E2 this year, for instance, I got to hear from R.L. Stine, creator of the Goosebumps series, along with Gale Galligan from The Baby-Sitters’ Club graphic novels, and Raina Telgemeier, creator of Smile and Ghosts. The panel was about writing for children, which I don’t typically do, but I understand that these authors can still inform my own work. At one point, for instance, a small child asked the authors how long it takes to create a book from start to finish. Stine, who is extremely prolific, responded with a simple “three weeks.” The audience laughed. Galligan and Telgemeier looked stunned and weren’t about to let this child walk away thinking that was the only answer. As anyone who has considered creating a book knows, even short books can take years. Stine further explained that his process is collaborative and fine-tuned at this point. His publisher already has agreements with him, the only design need is met by his loyal cover page artist, and he has many other people to help him get his work from start to finish. His extensive production team has been around the block together an insane number of times.

Finding Your Team’s Process

The dynamics of Galligan and Telgemeier’s production teams illustrate a more common (and for some, perhaps sobering) view of the process. They explained how their works typically take two years or so. And they have many more personal responsibilities involved with getting a project to completion, from working things out with editors and publishers to even creating the extensive art themselves.

Think about it this way: Most of these teams have, in some form, a writer, designer, programmer or publisher, editor, project manager, sales team, and so on — likely some of the same roles you’ll find on your own projects, either personal or work-related. Sometimes it’s an army of 200, ready to execute each needed action, and sometimes it’s just one woman sitting in her apartment, hand-drawing each page while she thinks about sales strategies. The scale and scope may vary, but the interactions can teach you how to set similar goals, timelines, and expectations for your own teams according to your skills, budget, and force.

Asking the Right People the Right Questions

Unsurprisingly, the bigger the event you go to, the more notable people you might get access to. OK, so they’re famous. Big whoop, right? What is important, though, is understanding why they’re famous. What about their work is so captivating and engaging? What did they do to dream up that work, and how could you apply that knowledge to your own? Panels are the best place to hear about this, and you might even get to ask some of your heroes your own questions directly. These industry leaders have almost definitely run across your question before, will cover it in a panel, and can speak to it from personal experience.

Though it’s valuable to hear from the famed and acclaimed, many hopeful creatives make the mistake of attending cons just for them. Although successful people can show you what a career looks like when it has reached success, the problem of hearing only from them is that they’re often far past the day-to-day challenges and experiences of people like you and me.

For this reason, it’s also important to look for the up-and-coming creators, such as the local artist who has published their first graphic novel to surprising success, or the indie game design team that captured interest by introducing a new mechanic. You can hear from these people in panels, but you can also walk right up to their booths on the floor where they’re more than happy to share what they’ve got going on. They can not only help you see what success looks like, but also are generally more open about whatever strange and challenging route they’ve taken to get there.

A few panels I attended recently were led by podcasters, including those from My Brother My Brother and Me, Hello from the Magic Tavern, and various other members of the Chicago Podcast Cooperative. Hearing from these podcast teams helped me learn about innovation. One of NogginLabs founder Brian Knudson’s favorite mantras — “constraints force innovation” — rings especially true in small production teams such as these. For instance, groups of podcasters discussed how certain team members had well-developed skills in major areas, but no one on the team had experience in certain other skills. Each time, instead of calling it quits or reaching for skills that weren’t available, they were able to innovate and shape their podcast around the skills that they do have on hand, making them what they are today.

Employees who make great eLearning or any kind of creative work will benefit from seeing what new innovations are out there and what other creators are (or shouldn’t be) doing. But it also makes our work a lot more enjoyable and meaningful.

Loving What You Do

It sounds great to say all these nice things about the business side of comic-cons and what you can gain from them as a professional, but let’s not forget the real reason they exist in the first place. They’re fun. People love the industry, love the work of the creators, and love getting to meet each other. Being able to do something that you love in a professional capacity just makes the experience even better. You’re there for you.

Both internally and with the public, NogginLabs employees are constantly sharing the latest news about creative topics from a variety of industries, including comics, video games, board games, movies, and even tech advancements. That makes sense. Employees who make great eLearning or any kind of creative work will benefit from seeing what new innovations are out there and what other creators are (or shouldn’t be) doing. But it also makes our work a lot more enjoyable and meaningful.

The way a comic book artist sets a mood or introduces a character or plot line might help us get a learner prepared for a serious topic or an unfamiliar scenario. The way a children’s book author weaves together multiple storylines might inform the way we create a branching training simulation. These inspirations were sought out, not because we were paid to search for them, but because it’s what we would have been doing anyway. We love soaking up this kind of content, and we love growing from it so we can release it back into the world with a new coat of paint.

Creativity is what connects us across all different industries, products, and perspectives. Spending time around others, both in your industry and without, can lead to more creative ideas and, in our case, fun and engaging training. Actively participating in the culture that you love, whether it be through comic-cons or some other connection, is what makes you able to do what you love and be more knowledgeable and experienced, not to mention smarter, nicer, and a bit funny!

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