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Paying a visit to the towering, bloodcurdling Tyrannosaurus Rex
skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History remains a
time-honored grade-school tradition. The first glimpse of that huge
skull with steak-knife-sized teeth has seared itself indelibly into
the memory banks of generations of thrilled children. With the
addition of video displays to the Fossil Halls, though, poor old T.
Rex loses top billing. Seemingly shoved to the side, he's become
little more than a stage prop. Instead, children race to and
cluster around the computer screens for virtual representations,
poking at keys and fighting over the trackball, oblivious to the
mighty remnants of a vanished world all around them. It's as if
they don't trust their own powers of observation; the packaged
electronic images are far more authentic to them. The universe is
now an alluring array of pixels, quickly becoming more important
than molecules. And this phenomenon is not exclusive to dinosaurs
or to children: We've all had the familiar experience of taking so
many pictures on vacation or spending so much time shooting video
at a party that afterwards it seems as if we hadn't really been
there. The screen lets us distance ourselves and become observers
instead of participants. Composing the real into its representation
supersedes enjoying it on its own terms.
T. Rex skeleton at the American
Museum of Natural History in 1937 (left) and 2008 (right,
For designers, whose imagination and expertise allow screens to
work their magic, this is both good and bad news. We might ask
ourselves: is incorporating a video component into a project going
to add another layer to a viewer's understanding, or is it only
going to function as a visual magnet drawing a disproportionate
share of attention? “Pixel dependent” used to refer specifically to
software that uses screen pixels rather than vectors to create an
image, but increasingly the term describes our daily lives. From
the constant companionship of personal hand-held screens to the
little TV screen in every new building's elevator or the annoying
screen in the back of taxicabs (which, thankfully, you can turn
off), screens are commonplace furniture of the modern designed
Fans watch concerts through their small screens: at a RZA as
Bobby Digital show (top, photo: Aram
Bartholl) and Busta Rhymes in Berlin (photo:
To be sure, screens represent an exciting frontier in today's
ever-expanding multimedia design arena. They allow designers to
explore narrative, type, image, color, and time in ways never
before imagined. Many of us take for granted the ability to create,
share, and watch very brief movies from very tiny mobile screens.
The development of electronic
ink means that soon a screen can be printed on any flat
surface, opening up even more possibilities of format, context and
function. Multimedia elements can contribute additional richness to
exhibits or performances and provide a viewer with insight that
can't be gained through real-world observation. Watching footage of
the artist slinging enamel onto canvas brings Jackson Pollack's
action-painting process vividly to life. And subtitled
simultaneous broadcasts of opera performances projected on monitors
offer translations to patrons of the arts so they can more fully
appreciate the story unfolding before them. The screens flanking a
concert stage could almost be considered the modern-day equivalent
of opera glasses, by bringing the scenes closer to the audience
instead of the other way around. Even live sporting events like the
Super Bowl are
arguably better experienced on screens.
All too often, however, screen images divert attention from the
very things they show us. Would you pay $250 for a seat at Giants
Stadium to ignore the Rolling Stones onstage? Put that way, it
seems ludicrous, yet that is exactly what many fans do: go to a
concert and spend the entire event with their eyes glued
to the Jumbotron. When the show is concurrently playing on a
monitor, everyone unable to resist the lure of the screen sees
exactly the same thing—framed, presented and served up on a
platter. And we're so used to those screens that most of us
eventually give in to them, exhausted by the continual effort
needed to look away.
Virtual Zippo Lighter (left) and iFlame for iPhone.
Weirdest of all is what happens when the (real) band walks off
and the audience wants an encore. No one carries cigarette lighters
anymore, since the advent of near-universal bans on public smoking.
Instead, fans cue up images of waving flames on their thousands of
iPhones and hold these cold pixel fires up to the now-blank stadium
screen (or, more likely, the screen that now blasts advertising for
Bud Light), creating a poignant postmodern scene that definitely
loses something in translation. Fire burns hot, after all, but no
one gets scorched with an iZippo.
Years ago a well-meaning relative gave my toddler a kid's
computer program by a company disturbingly named Comfy. Its
“Joy of Music”
game features Boom-Boom the drum, or rather a screen image of a
drum and drumsticks. By learning to manipulate the special Comfy
keyboard, a child can “play” the “drum.” I found this inexplicable.
Parental headaches notwithstanding, isn't it better to buy a real
drum and let the kid whale on it? Drumming is a physical as well as
a musical experience, and like so many other parts of life is
better when it's not pixel dependent.
As long as screens perform a unique function by giving us
something we can't get from our 3-D world (think of the alternate
universes found in video games, where we can fly and battle and
drive cars all over the sidewalk without feeling pain or dying),
we're safe. When a screen representation feels realer than real, we
find ourselves in some scary territory. In our day and age, the
image—less risky, more convenient, for sale, downloadable, and
deletable—is often preferable to the real thing. Now there's a
How did we ever go anywhere without Google and GPS to guide the way? Riechers explores the fun and frustration that come with virtual travel.
Section: Inspiration -
experience design, user research, digital media, Voice
Two tech-savvy baby boomers contemplate one age-old question: are we experiencing a new generation gap?
Section: Inspiration -
Was the pen any mightier than the keyboard? Print history scholar Collins considers whether or not the medium has changed the message.
Section: Inspiration -
book design, typography, Voice
Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand celebrate Design Observer’s tenth anniversary, discussing how it was conceived and what the future brings.
Section: Inspiration -
Conference , history, website
Associate Professor of Graphic Design, John Francis encourages professional graphic designers to mentor a student.
There are a lot of designers out there applying for the same job. In this guest post for AIGA Houston, Savage Art Director Ashley Rundall explains why it’s important for every designer to find out what makes you unique and better at your job than the next
guy, then sell them in the interview.
Section: Tools and Resources
Remember those great Volkswagen ads?
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