Moving Pictures: Graphic Design on Screen
Graphic design is everywhere. Last week we looked at professionals whose personal style pushed print projects beyond what the world had seen before. This week, we take our eyes off the page and onto slicker mediums. Movie theaters and TVs have been bringing graphic design work to the masses for decades. Now, it’s rare that we’re without our mobile devices, and an entirely new, totally interactive form of interface has emerged, and continues to evolve. These three notables changed what was possible–technically and creatively–on cinema, computer, and digital device screens:
*Saul Bass (1920 – 1996): Saul Bass was a graphic designer with an expansive, and diverse, portfolio, and in the 1950s, he transformed film title sequences by making those introductory moments truly come alive. Previously, opening credits were largely presented on static title cards; Bass merged his signature stocky, blocky type with stop-motion illustrations, live-action clips, and more into a moving picture show. These elements slinked, slid, and popped up across the screen in time with original scores and soundtracks that helped to heighten the mood. “For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn,” he said (via the excellent Movie Title Stills Collection). “I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.”
In five minutes or less, he expertly set the vibe for the rest of the show, and he ushered in a new era where the entirety of the movie experience—from lights down to lights up—became essential viewing.
*Susan Kare: Apple introduced personal computing to the masses in 1984 with the revolutionary Macintosh, which put incredible creative possibilities in the hands of so many newbies. One key factor in the nascent company’s success was choosing to pay special attention to how these powerful functions were presented. Artist and graphic designer Susan Kare joined the software group to develop fonts and, eventually, a series of visual components. She sketched her graphics out on graph paper, one square per pixel. There were floppy discs and trash cans, lassos and spray cans; these icons weren’t simply recognizable, they were also friendly, with smiley faces and a hand-written “hello” to greet new users. With Kare’s help, these machines became instantly engaging and accessible in a way that they hadn’t been before: “A personal computer so personable it can practically shake hands,” touted an early ad. Kare came up with an entirely new vocabulary that still informs the way we use our myriad devices today, and her work would become a de facto blueprint for graphical user interfaces (GUIs) everywhere. She continues to create and define how we understand visual cues and communication as a member of the product design team at Pinterest.
*Snow Fall: One of the biggest challenges facing graphic designers in the digital era is: What’s the best way to tell a tale online? In 2012, The New York Times published a sprawling, multi-part story chronicling a particularly harrowing winter tragedy involving 16 top free-skiiers and snowboarders in Washington. Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek was an instant phenomenon, offering readers an in-depth, fully immersive experience unlike anything that had been published digitally before. Andrew Kueneman, Deputy Director of Digital Design, described to Source in 2013 how difficult it was to pull the project off. “We have several visual/media elements that sit within or closely alongside of the narrative. Using scale, positioning, animation, and other design variables to control how much these elements interrupted or crept into the story was critical. We wanted the reader to experience these supporting bits of the story without feeling overwhelmed or removed from the narrative and pace that [writer] John [Branch] had established in the text… At times a more flashy, loud, or visually spectacular transition or behavior was toned down or removed because we felt it simply detracted from the story or could cause reader-fatigue (or just be annoying).” This epic collaboration between designers, reporters, developers, and more represented a significant moment for the art of online journalism. An avalanche of imitators followed, and “Snow Fall” became both proper noun and verb–shorthand for a representation of what can be accomplished when creative pros take unique chances with their tools, and push their expertise.
Good design—the kind that grabs your attention with an iron fist or a velvet glove and makes you think, and makes you feel—isn’t going away. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be (re)introducing a selection of graphic designers who established themselves by making rules, and by breaking them; incited passion through their often unconventional work; and whose wholly unique interpretations of graphic design have changed the way we learn and practice, as well as the way we see and relate to the world. We’ll look at the way tools have matured. And we’ll look at what’s next.