Understanding Digital Engineering with Comic Books

There is an art to the transfer of understanding, and the transfer sequence is crucial

Brian Haan

At its core, digital engineering helps get ideas from one mind to another mind with minimum effort and maximum integrity. That means quickly relaying a comprehensive concept. 

However, if we’re being honest, that's the ideal. The reality is many organizations spend a lot of time getting concepts into some kind of model, which must be translated into another model, never quite managing to achieve common data, a common language, or the ultimate digital transformation objective.

Let’s say I have a great idea for a chair. I need to get that great idea to my engineering and manufacturing friends without losing elements in translation. Maybe I put time and money into describing my chair into the latest modeling tool.

I send the model to my engineer to make sure it is structurally sound, but she uses a different model and even a different vocabulary. We have to spend time to get on the same page again and send a new model to manufacturing. Now there’s another model and incompatible data set. We’ve lost time and money, and my back is killing me because of a lack of a good chair.

In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud unpacks why comics work. I was startled that my interest in the communicative power of good art led me to the best book on digital engineering I have ever read.

Comics “relay a vision from the mind of the creator to the minds of an audience through a particular form,” McCloud writes, “which relies on the interplay of the creative and viewing processes.” So, this means my chair idea goes from my mind, to my hand, to paper, to another person’s eyes, and then to her mind.

There is an art to the transfer of understanding in digital engineering, and the sequence of the transfer is crucial. McCloud defines a comic as a “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

In the transformed enterprise, juxtaposed pictorial (figures) and other images (diagrams, words, equations) drive information presentation. Digital artifacts have deliberate relationships (e.g., trace, decompose, allocate) to each other and are hyper-dimensional compared to the single dimension of a sequence.

The intent of artifacts is to convey information and produce an aesthetic response or knowledge transfer in the audience. Note the word “deliberate.” We need to be deliberate to properly transfer knowledge.

McCloud lays out a sequence for an effective comic ending with the production and visual elements we associate with the craft. Too often we jump straight to this final step and work backward when trying to enact digital transformation.


I was startled that my interest in the communicative power of good art led me to the best book on digital engineering I have ever read.


Whether we’re talking comics or satellite constellations, a skilled practitioner helps translate intent into understanding.


NEXT UP FROM BRIAN HAAN: Accelerating Enterprise Capabilities with Digital Engineering: A Comic Strip

FURTHER READING: Digital engineering is crucial for the space domain

Posted by: Brian Haan

Chief Solutions Architect

Brian Haan has 25 years of systems engineering, mission engineering, and reliability experience covering multiple mission domains for defense and intelligence community customers. He leads technical research and development of digital engineering, systems engineering, and model-based systems engineering methodologies in SAIC’s Solutions & Technology Group. His work in data architecture and design has netted multimillion-dollar savings across multiple programs. He has led large systems engineering organizations as well as payload operations procedures.

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