I'm finally done -- well, done enough -- with my first graphic essay series on hearing aid technologies that I feel like I can release them into the world.

  1. "I have things in my ears. How the heck do they work?" (hearing aids primer)
  2. "A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques"
  3. "A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies"
  4. Combined references/credits document (only lists references I ended up explicitly using facts from; I read more than what's listed here).

Much of this information has come through the time and patience of others who are far more expert in the field than I. Particular thanks are due to Brandon Coventry, Sara Melnick, and Sarah Sparks, and especially to Joshua Alexander who first introduced me to the fascinating engineering behind hearing aids. All errors and omissions are my own. Comics below, followed by reflections.

I have things in my ears -- how the heck do they work? (draft) by Mel Chua

A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques (draft) by Mel Chua

A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies (draft) by Mel Chua

The original plan was to create 4 comics, each approximately 4 pages and centered around one specific topic. Instead, I came up with 3 comics that are 4, 7, and 15 pages respectively --a total of 26 pages, which is substantially more than the 16 I'd originally planned. Turns out you need lots of space to communicate complex topics with any level of sophistication -- and yet I still feel I've oversimplified too much, left out too much... and the most common reader feedback I got was "wow, some of these pages are so crowded."

Each of these pages took me between 1-2 hours to sketch and draft, and perhaps another hour to ink. That's about 65 hours of drawing alone -- not counting reading time beforehand, or revision/feedback cycles afterwards. Graphic essays take a long time, in part because they're so integrated into themselves that they become hard to revise without redoing the whole thing -- or at least the whole page. I also ran multiple pens completely out of ink during the process and started to look longingly at graphics tablets and people who knew how to wield them wisely.

Readers seemed to generally take to the humor I used to expand on difficult ideas. One technique that worked particularly well was anthropomorphizing logic and circuit components. For example, the hearing aid processor becomes a ponytail-boppin' DJ with huge headphones. Snakelike audio signals hurtle their rumpled selves into the antialiasing filter, emerging sleek and shiny out the other side.

I also got positive feedback for my personal take on the issue, with a little cartoon Mel popping in with commentary on how I perceive or use various technologies. Even my younger self makes several appearances -- for instance, sitting on the floor in speech therapy and gaily illustrating why consonant discrimination is so important to childhood language development. (Imagine learning the word "sit" without being able to distinguish between the "s" and "sh" sounds.)

If I were to do this again, I would redesign my process to make revision cycles easier. I have not yet found a good tradeoff. Graphical drafts are difficult to draw and revise, but writing out all-text "scripts" of pages lost so much of the graphical immediacy of the work that I gave up in frustration trying to prototype pages that way. A better route involved listing information I wanted to communicate, breaking it down into what data went on which individual comic pages, and doing rough thumbnail sketches of what information would be communicated in what area of the page -- but that took forever (and isn't counted in my drawing time, by the way). And all these things lived on paper, meaning that I had to slog my way to a scanner to get them out to anyone who wasn't near me.

On the up side, it was never difficult to find reviewers; all I had to do was plonk down in front of people and begin sketching, and inevitably a small crowd would gather and begin to pass pages around. (Maybe this only works on academic campuses full of fellow geeks.)

At some point, I would like to meet more experienced artists who would let me professional artists with some degree of training and apprenticeship and learning-through-practice who would let me observe them and question them about their tools, techniques, choices... people from whom I can learn. I'm self-taught in pretty much all aspects of this work.