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Vermont cartoonist Dan Nott on the hidden systems that shape our lives

Dan Nott
Dan Nott of Wilder uses comics to explore the complex systems that shape our lives, from democracy to the internet.

Vermont author Dan Nott uses comics to help make complex systems and ideas easier to understand. A graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Nott now teaches there. He joined Vermont Edition to talk about his creative process, his work and the role of curiosity in making art.

His latest book, “Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day,” uses illustrations to simplify systems many people take for granted. It was published last year and made the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Nott explained that in researching these various systems for his book, he learned that much of our modern-day infrastructure uses the same paths as older systems. For example, he said, much of the internet grid follows the same pathways as the telegraph did.

Host Mikaela Lefrak asked Nott whether, after studying these systems that make up our infrastructure, he thought they were resilient.

"A lot of these systems were designed with a lot of redundancy in place—so that if one part of it breaks, another part of it can take over," he said. "I think one of the biggest challenges that we're seeing moving forward is that a lot of the assumptions that we made about climate and the environment that these systems rest on are now changing, due to climate change — so I think that's the biggest threat that we're seeing to a lot of these different systems, particularly water, but also energy."

Nott also created a graphic guide about how democracy works in Vermont called “Freedom and Unity," which follows an earlier one called "This is What Democracy Looks Like," that focused on the federal government. These guides use applied cartooning, or the use of comic skills in a collaborative way for social good or advocacy, Nott said. "This is really where I started to think of comics as a process of untangling, and of taking something kind of jumbled and complicated like government and looking at it piece by piece," he said.

There is now an Applied Cartooning Lab at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and different cartoonists are tackling topics like mental health and the health care system.

For anyone interested in learning about the art of cartooning, Nott said to start small and follow your curiosity and interests. And, he added, know "that you don't have to be the most technically gifted artist, that it's really about visual communication—and that can start very simply."

Broadcast at noon Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.