A graphic essay (sometimes called a visual essay) uses a combination of text and images to explore a specific topic. Graphic essays can look like comics, graphic novels, magazines, collages, artist books, textbooks, or even websites. Graphic essays often first take the form of written essays and then have graphic elements added to enrich the reader experience. Unlike infographics, which also combine text and images, graphic essays are often more text-based and usually have a narrative arc or specific reading order.
Comics are a genre used to express ideas through images combined with text or other visual information. Comics can take the form of a single panel or a series of juxtaposed panels of images, sometimes called a strip. Text is conveyed via captions below the panel(s), or speech bubbles and onomatopoeias within the panel(s), to indicate dialogue, narration, sound effects, or other information. Graphic novels are often considered to be a longer form of comics, typically in book form.
A web-based graphic essay can take the form of a blog or a single page website, such as a Microsoft Sway page or an interactive Prezi. For Microsoft Sway and Prezi graphic essays, see the examples below. If you are creating a blog we recommend visiting the Web-Based Projects page.
Graphic Essay Design Tip:
Graphic essays can take many forms, so we recommend being creative within the scope of your project! Get some help from DesignLab to brainstorm options and talk through the various tools available!
There are many different software programs that can be used to create graphic essays. Below is a list of the software that we recommend for making a graphic essay. We organized the software by category and put the software from top to bottom from best to worst. We recommend using a software you know well or learning the software well enough to establish an easy workflow, so you can spend less time troubleshooting and spend more time on your project. Check out our Software Support page for links to tutorials for all of these programs.
General Graphic Essay Software
Canva: This online program has a limited free option, as well as subscriptions at a cost. Many of the functions of Canva are free, but there are certain elements only available via a subscription. Canva files are created online and can be downloaded as a variety of file types including PNG, JPEG, or PDF. There are many report-style templates that can be used to create graphic essays. Additionally, you can now incorporate the Creative Commons Zero image databases Pexels and Pixabay easily into your Canva designs.
Piktochart: This online program has a limited free option, as well as monthly and annual subscriptions at a cost. Piktochart files are created online and can be downloaded as PNG files. These files are usually lower in resolution than a typical poster, but making the dimensions larger will allow for downsizing with a higher resolution. They do not allow for collaboration in the free option and they only allow for 5 active projects at a time. Additionally, alignment tools are difficult to use. However, this software is very good for making charts and graphs!
Adobe InDesign: This software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via all computer lab machines, both in the labs and for checkout. This program was designed for making print-based documents, especially magazines, with a focus on text in combination with images. With layers and alignment tools, this is one of the best options for creating graphic essays if you know or have time to learn the software.
Adobe Illustrator: Like InDesign, this software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via all computer lab machines, both in the labs and for checkout. With layers and alignment tools, this is another good alternative for creating graphic essays if you know or have time to learn the software. This program is designed for making scalable vector graphics, and doesn’t deal with photos as well as InDesign or Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop: Like InDesign and Illustrator, this software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via all computer lab machines, both in the labs and for checkout. With layers and alignment tools, as well as plenty of photo editing capabilities, this is another good alternative for creating graphic essays if you know or have time to learn the software. Unfortunately the text tools are not as robust as InDesign.
Microsoft PowerPoint: This software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via Office 365. It is also installed on all the all computer lab machines. This is the standard software for creating slideshows, but the slides can be resized to letter (85.in x 11in) for making print documents. There are limited alignment and design tools, but this can be easier to use for more heavily image-based graphic essays than Microsoft Word.
Microsoft Word: This software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via Office 365. It is also installed on all the all computer lab machines. This is the standard software for creating text-based documents, and has the ability to add images in line with the text, but their image alignment options can be frustrating. We recommend this only for heavily text-based graphic essays.
Web-Based Graphic Essay Software
Microsoft Sway: This web-based software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via Office 365. Sway pages are defaulted to private but can be sharable as website links by adjusting the sharing settings. This unique software is a single-page website organized by an outline structure with sections and subsections. For those looking to create an interactive graphic essay, this is our best recommendation because it has the ability to include text, images, video, and/or audio together in a single project. Sway designers have the ability to choose how readers will view the project, either scrolling from top to bottom, scrolling from left to right, or creating a slideshow that can be clicked through.
Prezi: This online presentation software Prezi offers another web-based and interactive way to view a graphic essay. Projects are created on a canvas or whiteboard where text, images, sounds, and videos are placed and then presented by navigating or “zooming” through them. This spatial way of displaying content can situate information in different contexts as well as represent processes and relationships in compelling ways. Prezi has a limited free option, as well as monthly and annual subscriptions at a cost. There is also educational pricing available. Prezi files are created online and can be presented directly from the online site or be downloaded and presented locally.
Comic-Specific Graphic Essay Software
Comic Life: This software is available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff via select InfoLab machines (including those in DesignLab), but only in the labs. There is a 30 day free trial available, but afterward, individual and group purchase of the software is available through their website. This is one of the most extensive comic/storyboard creative engines out there, with lots of built-in features that are unavailable through other programs. We highly recommend this program for comic projects.
Pixton: This online comic creator is designed to be a simple template-based system to drag and drop comic characters and elements. While the program has paid features, you can typically make a basic comic with the free account. This platform also comes with a built-in database of free characters, images, and icons. The paid account allows you to upload your own content, print, and download, otherwise you will need to share the comics electronically.