04 | FMP: Unflattening literature review

Maria S
3 min readOct 30, 2021

<<< For my previous post on the project, click here.

Overview

In the book Unflattening Sousanis argues against the fixed viewpoint by showing perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points. He utilises the collage-like capacity of comics to visually explore the importance of interconnected thinking and shared points of view. Combinations of pictures and words not only illustrate, but embody his message through visuals.

Similar to McCloud in Understanding Comics (1998), Sousanis shows the reader that images and words are inextricably linked. They are of equal importance in meaning-making, as well as equal components in thinking.

Author

Nick Sousanis is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies at the University of Calgary. Unflattening was originally Sousanis’s university dissertation, which he made as an experiment in visual thinking.

Sousanis explains to the reader that Unflattening is “a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing” (p32). This means Flatness is a narrow and rigid frame of mind where a person blocks off other mental pathways before considered — “interrupting the dynamic relation that is seeing”. He claims that we must welcome new multimodal and alternative ways of experiencing the world, allowing us to collect more information to actively construct our understanding of things.

Sousanis encourages the reader to accept that there is no “single, objective view”, arguing this through a mixture of pictures and words. The two mediums combined help the reader understand one in terms of the other — the visual providing expression where words fail (and vice versa). This enables the reader to “see in relation” (p.81), which he believes to be an inherently visual process.

Several pages from the book that elaborate upon the importance of incorporating multiple vantage points.

In context of MA:UX

Sharing viewpoints is very useful in the context of project work. In collaborative teamwork it’s an ideal that, if done properly, can help unite thought processes within the group, allowing for better team communication throughout the project.

It is also useful specifically to our final project, where our aim to forge an understandable network of context to situate language learning is given more depth with the consideration of other vantage points. Here, including multiple vantage points will hopefully help clarify meaning as it encourages learners to see the context from several angles. Once they have had this chance to fully understand, they will be able to continue learning through playing, exploring, and making connections between foreign langauge concepts and their contexts.

Evaluating the book

Unflattening was an insightful read, and unique in concept. It is a great example of what can be done in the comic book format. However, adding a visual side to an academic paper has the potential to both hinder and facilitate understanding. I personally appreciated this part of it, but acknowledge that it is difficult to draw in a way that is coherent to everyone. What is chosen by the author to be visually depicted, as well as their personal illustrative style may be an hinderance to readers being able to fully understand what is being said.

Finally, Sousanis mentions throughout the book that people should aim to see from different perspectives — but if I’ve learnt one thing from MA:UX it’s to always question: “Who/ where are the people?”. Sousanis does not specify which group of people he is targeting, unless he means to address all on planet Earth? This is never contextualised, apart from commenting that they are people that do things “just because they’ve always been doing them this way”. Without this being specified, it is difficult to know how the reader can come to acquire new perspectives, and see things in relation.

>>> For my next post on the project, click here.

References.

  • Sousanis, N., 2015. Unflattening. Harvard University Press.
  • McCloud, S. and Manning, A.D., 1998. Understanding comics: The invisible art. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communications, 41(1), pp.66–69.

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Maria S

Personal blog for MA User Experience Design at University of Arts London