Graphic safety for airplane crashes

One of the reasons I’ve been a bit MIA from the blog lately is because I’ve been traveling a lot. On one flight, I noticed some interesting things in the safety manual. First, let’s look at a section that isn’t too bad:

This part shows a nice step-by-step for what to do in the event of increased cabin pressure: how to put on an oxygen mask. Note the “no smoking” sign to the side — smoking with one of those things would be bad. Here, the numbered panels may serve two purposes — it gives a reading order along the “z-path”, left-to-right and down, and it also gives an order to the procedure. You need to follow these steps in order to put the mask on correctly.

Comparatively, this one from right below seems very strange:

If the numbers are meant to direct a stage-by-stage process (or even just an order for reading the panels), then perhaps I can paraphrase the overall meaning (and the signs to the side):

“In the event of either a land or water crash, first, African Americans need to cover their heads. Then, blond women need to grab their legs, followed by white men who should force their children down next to them into submission. Lastly, once all the other groups are safe, pregnant women should brace themselves. They’re the bottom rung in our concerns.”

Ok, so maybe I added a few minor embellishments, but my point should be clear: this sequence has no need of numbers for any purpose. Really, all people should brace themselves as quick as possible in one of these ways, not in any particular temporal order. And, despite that people probably would read it in a z-path anyhow, there isn’t any need to read these in the numbered order here either.

I love this example especially because it provides great support for why sequential images are not always a sequence in time. Each of these panels simply shows a different viewpoint of a broader scene. It’s a shift in Space but not in Time. Truly, you could rearrange these panels in any order and still maintain the same meaning — clearly a sign that no “time” passes across the panel boundaries.


  • Y’know, it would more sense to me if the first sequence didn’t have numbers (which I didn’t even notice on the first read). The numbers in the second “strip” indicated to me that it was not sequence, but four different options.

    But I probably already “know how to read comics” and am not a good gauge.

  • I suspect that the intent of the numbers (and order) was to rank the techniques. That is, the arm-crossing thing on the seat in front of you is best, but if there’s no seat in front of you grab your legs, and if you have a kid with you… etc.

  • A rank order would certainly be one interpretation, but numbers on panels aren’t used that way normally. Given that the sequence directly above it (both in the post and the pamphlet) couldn’t work that way, I doubt that’s the intention.

    Why would there be two totally separate functional interpretations of numbers on panels right after each other? (… especially of a use for panel numbering that is non-normative)

  • Not to mention visual literacy.

    Somewhere in my archives I have the report from a missionary group developing narrative visual instructions for running a well pump.

    Imagine their shock to discover their intended audience could not comprehend illustrations of disembodied body parts, i.e. a pair of hands performing an action.

    The learners had to have the entire body depicted to know what the action in the drawing was.

  • Thanks for the comment! I’ve talked about visual fluency around here before, and you’re absolutely right.

    I’m curious about that missionary account though… if you can find me a citation, please please please post it/send it to me!

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