Klossner: The secret of success in federal IT cartooning

In the 13-plus years I have been drawing cartoons for FCW, I have often needed a high learning curve on cartoon topics, writes John Klossner.

 

Klossner NHIN 4

This has been a good year to do cartoons for Federal Computer Week.

In the 13-plus years I have been drawing cartoons for this publication, I have often needed a high learning curve on cartoon topics. I don't have to tell you, but FCW covers subject matter that is a) of interest to a specialized community, and b) often ahead of the mainstream curve. (For example, I noted that FCW's encounter with the birthers occurred several weeks before the mainstream media's.)

When creating humor, or making editorial comments, this is a challenge. It helps in these situations to have the readers, listeners, viewers, etc. know as much as possible about the subject matter that you are commenting on. Think of a bunch of people sitting in a room, commenting on someone in the room's clothing. Comments and jokes can cover more specifics — "Do you dress in the dark to conserve energy, Dave?" — because everyone knows the reference points. But when someone makes a reference to an outfit that same person wore last month, members of the community who weren't there are lost.

As I said, this has been a good year, topic-wise. Many of the issues of importance to the federal IT world have also been prominent in the public eye issues — including Web 2.0, virtual training, stimulus spending and tracking, cybersecurity, e-mail, contractor relations. These issues and their specifics are familiar to a larger audience, allowing me to comment on a wider variety of specifics, hopefully making for sharper commentary or humor. (I can't make a joke about "tweeting" to someone who is hearing about Twitter for the first time. Come to think about it, it isn't that easy to make a joke about 'tweeting" even if someone knows what I'm talking about.)

I point all this out in light of the recent cartoon on a topic I had no familiarity with: the National Health Initiative Network. While aware of its existence, I wasn't aware of the specifics of their role, or any recent controversies. I had to revert back to older techniques: a) ask the editors a lot of questions; b) talk to the reporter covering this story; c) go to the FCW blogs and columns; or d) Google it.

It turned out this story was pretty new, and hadn't been widely reported yet, eliminating options c) and d). The editor was helpful in explaining the story to me, noting in particular that there are concerns about NHIN's technical architecture. Not all agree with these claims. There is debate about whether they should fix the flaws or should they proceed, slowing down the progress of the program.

In discussing this, the editor used a term that helped me immensely: Would going ahead with the network as it is be "paving the cow paths?" Although I hate to give away trade secrets, this is often all a cartoonist needs to go on — a strong visual image. In this case, however, it was a complicated image, and I don't have the rendering skills necessary to convey a cow path being re-paved in a 6-inch box.

So what other images did I consider? From my sketchbook, I offer the following ideas.

Klossner NHIN 1

PROS: Easily understood, "flop, flop" looks funny. CONS: Car imagery is a cartoon cliché.

Klossner NHIN 2

PROS: Unique image, funny implications. CONS: Doesn't convey the issue clearly or accurately.

Klossner NHIN 3

PROS: Funny image if understood. CONS: Not so easily understood. Horse imagery is almost as big a cliché as cars.

The image I went with, below, isn't necessarily much better than the ones I rejected. But I felt it was unique — in looking at it again, I think it might be necessary to have the label "architecture" in there. Or at least a "flop, flop."

 

Klossner cartoon NHIN

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