Sunday, August 21, 2016

Design & Style

I feel like these words tend to be used indiscriminately in the visual narrative arts, especially with regards to animation and film. I commonly hear highly-stylized or VFX-heavy films described as well-designed, while I rarely hear films with little stylization or VFX described as well-designed. It’s as though design is used as a measure of the amount or quality of visual style rather than as a measure of how visuals serve the story. 

Perhaps this is because overt stylization and visual design is easy to identify and appreciate, largely in part to the continuing advancement and proliferation of CGI that spurns filmmakers and storytellers into the race for ever more complex and impressive visuals. What this seems to be doing for design, however, is tying it to the output of these tools, so that in this particular view, an epic science fiction film like The Phantom Menace is considered a better designed film than its 22-year predecessor, A New Hope, and both of these films are far better designed than a low-budget independent film like Sideways.

Star Wars I The Phantom Menace ©1999 Twentieth Century Fox Films

Star Wars IV: A New Hope ©1977 Twentieth Century Fox Films

Sideways ©2004 Fox Searchlight Films

By this assertion Hollywood should be cranking out ever and ever better-designed films. Take a look at the marked improvement of design between the latest Independence Day and the original. Or take Transformers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The newer films are so much better designed.

Independence Day/Independence Day Resurgence ©1996/2016 Twentieth Century Fox Films
Transformers/Transformers Age of Extinction ©2007/2014 DreamWorks Picture/Paramount Pictures
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ©1990/2016 Paramount Pictures

But here is where the fallacy lies: design is not a volume dial for visual complexity, sophistication or stylization, and turning it to 11 does not make a design any better than 10, or 9, or even 1. Instead I propose that design is worse in the face of the ‘more is better mentality’ and that The Phantom Menace is the least successfully designed film next to either A New Hope or Sideways. I would even go so far as to say Sideways is the best designed of the three, but I'll save my rationale for the end.

To be fair, design and style are certainly subjective affairs with many different approaches and interpretations. Additionally, these problems with design as I see them are not simply symptoms of over-design, but more often than not reflect of a deficit of storytelling, and in many cases are presented as a substitute for storytelling. Although I am presenting my own personal ideas on the relationship of design to style, my intent is not to just asset my own nerdy opinions, but hopefully to stir thought and conversation.

But first my opinions! Let's start by asking Google how it describes design and style:

design - n. purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.    v. decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), typically by making a detailed drawing of it. 
style - n. a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed.

This is actually pretty close to how I see it:  Design in my mind is a process of understanding and visually representing creative intent, which in the case of cinematic narratives like film or animation usually comes from story. This process begins with asking questions: what is the overall story and overriding themes, how do the constituent parts (characters, settings, plot, etc.), and narrative structural components (acts, scenes, shots, beats, etc.) all serve the greater whole? The execution process then follows with a mixture of research & reference, visual development, conceptual iteration followed by the final execution of informed visual choices. Ideally the design process follows the story process, but in cases where the two happen concurrently design can actually help inform story.

Style, on the other hand, I see as an end product usually informed by some combination of creative intent (story), and artistic voice (aesthetics, taste & judgement). More stylish film-makers tend to put greater emphasis on their own aesthetics and artistic presence, often ending up with recognizable bodies of work informed by a common style or aesthetic—think Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, David Lynch, and so on.

L to R: Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, The Elephant Man by David Lynch, Edward Scissorhands by Tim Burton

Where design is successfully balanced between the interests of story and voice, we are left with memorably original, artistic and moving stories. Where there is an imbalance of voice over intent we are often left with stylistically overwrought films that may be interesting to the eye in the moment, but ultimately feel empty, over-whelming or meaningless. I won't show any examples to protect the guilty, but I'm sure everyone has their own examples.

Visual storytellers who work story first tend to place less emphasis on their own artistic presence to allow the unique style and voice rise out of the particular story itself. This is not to say they don’t leave recognizable fingerprints on their work. Every film-maker or storyteller is guided by their own personal aesthetics and taste, consciously or not. Look at the consistent creative judgement informing the Coen Brothers’ vast body of work, despite genre, tone and style. 

Random assortment of films in descending order from L to R:
Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Fargo, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, Raising Arizona, and The Big Libowski

Similarly, the film libraries of Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar each features stylistically diverse films, yet they usually tend to be bound by common ‘house’ aesthetics regardless of director or genre. Up and Wall-e may be completely different in terms of style, but they are guided by the same aesthetics. 

Wall-e ©2008 Pixar/Disney |  UP ©2009 Pixar/Disney

This balance between artistic voice and creative intent I would say is closely related to the classic case of form versus function. Where design is the process of understanding and communicating creative intent (what you want the audience to experience), story can be seen as the function (the what) and visuals as the form (the how). When visuals are informed by just aesthetics, unguided by artistic or narrative intent, the outcome is often design for the sake of design—because it looks cool, because it appeals to some artistic taste, or astounds the eye, or pushes some artistic boundary. To me this adds no more design value than using every crayon in the box. It is uninformed design.

Informed design, to my eye, is design that considers every crayon in the box to find just the right one for a given goal. Good design is not necessarily excessive, mindlessly aesthetic, technologically ground-breaking (although it certainly can be if the intent requires it). Good design is about finding the right tool for the job, and in many cases is completely invisible. When done right, design is the means to an end, not the ends to the means. 

Remember, the heart of every narrative art is an experience. Storytellers, writers, filmmakers, comic or picture book writers and illustrators all aspire to the same basic goal—to seize the imagination of their audience through the veracity of their storytelling. For visual narratives, visual design is just a tool, albeit an important tool. But when the tool itself, or the hand holding the tool, upstages the experience itself, the veracity of the illusion is challenged and the audience’s attention shifts from the storytelling to the storyteller, violating John Gardner's golden rule of creating “the vivid and continuous dream” (the Art of Fiction). 

A bad metaphoric way of looking at it: if a house is visually designed such that it is interesting to the eye, but creates a space one simply does not want to live in, is it truly good design?

Now about my audacious statement that Sideways is better designed than The Phantom Menace, and arguably even A New Hope, (I'll reserve my full design comparison of these films for my lecture series):  the visual design choices of Sideways consistently, subtly and cleverly represent thematic and character progression throughout the story. They are not bold, in your face, or even consciously present, but they work at a subtextual level adding to the emotional and intellectual experience and satisfaction of the film as a whole. You don't walk out of the theater or turn off your television thinking to yourself, 'Those designs were awesome'. Instead, if you were like me, you simply thought, 'What a great film!'

I propose that the design of Star Wars IV: A New Hope is thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted, bold, graphic and cinematic. But where the visuals are used to construct strong cinematic compositions, solid visual clarity and original, compelling, immersive settings, they rarely operate at a deeper emotional or intellectual level to underscore theme, story or character. I do expect some push back with this opinion as there are certainly examples of thoughtful visual language and relationships, from Darth Vader to the Star Destroyers, but these I feel are fairly academic.

The Phantom Menace, finally, I submit as an example of cutting-edge, over-the-top, visual spectacle, that is sadly devoid of meaningful or succesful design. Not only is there a clear absence of visual design in support of story, but in many cases the visuals are so visually complex and over-designed that they distract from the story, or stand empty in the void of effective storytelling. I would define it as a classic case of design for design sake--because it looks cool, or serves a particular aesthetic, or because it turns the dial to 11. And though this is a 'problem of design', I believe it stems more often than not from the directors, executives and studios who become so infatuated with the tools and what they can do, that they forget about what it is they are using the tools for in the first place, and rarely ask if it is even the right tool for the job. 

But enough of my nerdy opinions. I'd love to hear your thoughts on design and style, be you designer, storyteller or audience: What is good design to you? Where do you agree or disagree? How many crayons do you think it takes to make a good design? 

I'm listening. :-)


  1. hi Mark, such a pleasure to stumble in your blog today. I totally agree.
    It all feels very true when thinking about typical Hollywood movies. i find that the tricky aspect of the concept of "entertaining" the audience makes most films the way they are: a visual stylistic spectacle with often very poor content. Bold / overwhelming Style can easily impress people, and it's easy to express a personal opinion about it for everybody. Here is the cheap entertainment I guess. In most movies It feels that the typical objective is to focus on the spectacle so the audience comes back home drunk with imagery to talk about with their office mate the next day. Is it that "moviemaking" is most commonly nowadays the form of cheap entertainment rather than the art of storytelling?
    On another note What do you think about David Carson approach to graphic design? i'm wondering also a lot about some analogies between design for film and graphic design when thinking about him. Specifically when I think about the way often people defines "good design".
    I agree a lot with David's use or not use of traditional use of design rules and how he focuses on the emotional impact of design for delivering the message. Hope what I'm saying makes sense. Excited to hear your thoughts. Thanks for your time

    1. Hi Francesca, so sorry for the slow reply to your thoughtful comments! Hopefully I can make up for it with this exhaustive reply...

      I found it very ironic that you referred to spectacle as cheap entertainment, which is exactly what it feels like despite the enormous budgets that regularly feed them. My guess is this emphasis on spectacle comes from studios' attempts to mitigate risk during particularly challenging period in the film business. Bigger budgets, bigger spectacle and wider releases all seem to aim for high-return opening grosses to compensate for the quick theatrical drop off and diluted dvd/digital distribution brought on by digital disruption and competing forms of entertainment.

      If this is the case, then it is even more ironic that instead of reducing budgets and diversifying content, studios double-down on larger and fewer tentpole bets as if with the hope they will be too big to fail. Yet an even greater cost to this 'sound business sense' is an over-reliance on established IP in the form of adaptations and sequels. While there is nothing inherently wrong with sequels, or even spectacle for that matter, the price we pay as an audience, besides ever-more expensive tickets, is the substitution of originality and creative risk-taking of cinematic art, for the stock, derivative, formula of mindless cinematic craft.

      But hey, something must be working because they just keep making them! :-)

      Thank you for bringing up David Carson! Although I was only peripherally aware of his early work with Raygun, I really didn't know much about him or his design philosophy. I still want to dive more deeply into his work, but he does present a wonderful parallel to emotional storytelling in graphic design.

      His Ted Talk ( gives some interesting insights into his process and approach, and I especially appreciate his playful manipulation and even blatant disregard of the 'rules' of graphic design (grid, what grid?) for purely artistic, emotional and evocative intent. He is another perfect reminder of the powerful relationship between the rules and systems of intellectual craft, and the 'negative' space of emotional art that lurks subtly between the rules, bends them, or breaks them altogether.

      Thanks so much for sharing your valuable thoughts Francesca! I hope to hear more from you again. :-)