Friday, 28 October 2011

Perpetual Motion

Implied movement is at the heart of good graphic design.

In an insightful lecture on the uses and abuses of design, Wayne Williams, chair of the design program at Grant MacEwan University, traced the origins of the modern discipline of graphic design back to the 19th century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and the popularization of print media. However, it's perhaps worth noting that the principles of good design go back much further than that.

The haiku poem, a form developed in 17th century Japan that is still popular today, embodies virtually all the traits of good design that Williams outlined. The Ancient Pond by Matsuo Basho is one of the most famous examples of this art form ever composed. Here is how it looks in its original form:

Reading from top to bottom, right to left, it literally translates as follows: “The ancient pond (furuike ya); a frog leaps in (kawazu tobikomu); the sound of the water (mizu no oto).”

The traits that make this haiku so perfect are identical to the hallmarks of great design as outlined by Williams. Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be. Your focus is immediately drawn to the central piece of imagery through the power of isolation. Even the ‘Rule of Three’ is observed. But perhaps most importantly, this creation embodies movement in both its literal meaning and the way the characters are drawn, wherein the arc of the frog leaping into the pond is plainly visible.

Much of what Williams discussed in terms of design do's and don'ts was already somewhat familiar to me. However, the importance of implied movement was something that had never occurred to me before. Now when I look at design that I like, I see it everywhere.

Moving Images – China’s Powerful UNICEF Ad Campaign

In 2008, the advertising firm of Ogilvy and Mather was commissioned to design an ad campaign for the Shanghai branch of UNICEF aimed at drawing attention to the over 1.5 million children who continue to live in extreme poverty in China in spite of 30 years of continuous economic growth. Here is one of the images they produced.

This image was part of a series of outdoor ads displayed throughout the city of Shanghai, which were also featured as print ads. This one features a transparent ghostlike child dressed in tattered rags sitting on a staircase. The sign next to the child reads “Don’t ignore me. China has over 1.5 million underprivileged children.”

As outdoor 3D displays, these ads created quite a stir. However, this image seems to work equally well as a 2D print ad. I had seen this image before and had been struck by its subtle-yet-visceral power. However, it was only after learning about the importance of implied movement in design that I began to understand why that was.

If you’re talking implied movement, this image is chock full of it. The lines on the sidewalk suggest pedestrian traffic, highlighting the fact that most of us go about our lives completely oblivious to the underprivileged people in our midst. This image also implies vertical motion with the use of the staircase. The staircase serves as an apt symbol for modern China, a society characterized by rapidly rising standards of living a society - at least for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

In stark contrast to all this is the boy’s implied staticity. He is going nowhere. But even if you look at the child, there is implied direction. The boy’s eyes are cast downward, conveying a sense of despair and acceptance of his fate. Furthermore, the child appears to be melting into oblivion, on the verge of disappearing completely. The message conveyed by this image is so self-evident that the placard beside the child is practically unnecessary, save the UNICEF logo.

I wouldn't have noticed half of this a day ago. I get it now.

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