Do Not Adjust Your Set

A trade show for designers: Report from the 1999 BDA Conference.
Chris and Trish Meyer

In the motion graphics world, it is easy to become seduced with technology. New releases of software and hardware bring with them the promise of being able to achieve previously unimaginable feats. But at the end of the day, we don't deliver a spec sheet to our clients; we deliver art - and hopefully art that effectively communicates the ideas they want to get across.

You know where to learn about gear; where do you learn about art?

This article was written in 1999 after visiting the BDA (Broadcast Designers' Association) conference in San Francisco. The BDA is dedicated to those who create graphics-intensive imagery such as station identities, openers, and commercials as well as print, web, and set designs. In 1999, grunge type treatments were still all the rage; it's fun to look back now and see what from those designs still looks fresh and relevant, and what looks dated and odd. We've posted a companion article which includes focuses on specific studios and jobs.

During and after the show, we had the opportunity to sound out a number of design studios on their approaches, what they felt the current trends were in both design and technology, and how this affected their work. The most prevalent idea was that good communication is often subtle and holistic, rather than focusing on one image or catch phrase which is supposed to bang the viewer over the head with The Message. And yes, your choice of tools can help you more easily realize your art.

Balancing Elements: Typography

The talks that appealed to us most were hearing designers talk about design. For example, typography is a bedrock element of most motion graphics. Some of the best designers came from the type and print worlds. A significant portion of the books in our own library focus on type. But it is surprising how many video people are uncomfortable manipulating type - especially when it comes to properly integrating it with other elements.

In one of the more entertaining talks, BDA Master Series speaker David Carson wasn't reluctant to skewer sacred design cows, including BDA's own logo and brochures. Declaring that "Seven (the unsettling film opening title that influenced graphic design for years) is over; it's time for something new", Carson chided practitioners of the currently popular visual-overload look, where there is no unused space in the frame and everything is blurred and jumpy. Instead, he advocated simplicity, white space (or its equivalent), and in general that Less is More. For example, he feels what made the "typing" commercials he created for Lucent so memorable was that they were an island of calm inbetween so many frantic ads.

Simplicity does not necessarily mean obviousness: "Don't mistake legibility for communication," Carson warns. His own designs are marked by words, icons, and even the company logo crowding the edges of the page or screen, often with difficult to read text. "Give your audience some credit; they're intelligent" - and can not only figure out a partially hidden message, but might also enjoy connecting the dots themselves. Taken to an extreme, another Masters series speaker - Neville Brody - even showed the Fuse fonts where the "characters" are often just suggestive of a letter's shape.

It was surprising to hear Carson, known best for cutting-edge typography, say it is the image that dictates to him what the type should be. All the visual elements are then equal in importance, rather than trying to make the viewer focus on one. As a result, it frustrates him greatly when a client changes just the photo, and keeps the type the same: such as changing an image of a girl enjoying learning to a serious-looking boy, or replacing an otherwise enabled person in a wheelchair with an able-bodied person in a normal chair. The overall subliminal message being conveyed is compromised.

Design by Belief for USA Networks.

This all-elements-are-equal approach is shared by others. Steve Kazanjian and Mike Goedecke, then partners in the Venice, California based studio Belief, feel that they and other design studios "are actually all creators of what we like to call the 'New Visual Language.' A New Visual Linguist is someone who feels broadcast design is more than just type and graphics. Motion Design has become an unrecognized art form that revolves around not only type, but mood, color, and sound. It's about creating televised works of art."

Some of the most compelling work we saw used type as graphical elements, texture, and even replacements for traditional framing devices and lines, even if the type itself was too small or distantly-focused to read. Rather than being literal, it conveyed the intended emotion. The grunge/nervous movement (not yet dead, and still compelling) has been doing this for a few years now with distressed in-your-face type, but the same ideal can be used in more subtle and elegant ways.

next page: the beginning of the desktop studio trend

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