seen + learned

A Tip for Visual and Information Design from the Movies

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010 | Posted by Tania Schlatter | Labels: , ,

About this time of year I participate in the AIGA's student portfolio review. Graduating designers pay for the "privilege" of showing their work to as many volunteer professionals as possible within a set time limit. As a reviewer, the heat is on to grasp a student's capabilities in a nanosecond and impart some wisdom that will magically help them transform their portfolio into a thing of power and beauty that will make jaded design hiring managers weep with awe.

These brave and determined kids have paid through the nose for college, paid quite a bit of beer money to be critiqued, and fairly enough, have high expectations of the event. The work varies. In a room of about 16, there are a few standouts. For one or maybe two, it is hard to believe that they had formal design education. Last year I was faced with a portfolio that the student should have been able to use to get a refund from his college, or at least a free extra year. College doesn't work that way, unfortunately, and I had to figure out something constructive to say, fast.

The student used his own illustrations as backgrounds to several CD packages and action movie posters. The illustrations were graffiti-like and the type was big and bold. Overall, the work was a visual explosion, not in a cool way. I started talking about movies – about how in action movies there's a star and a best supporting actor or two. Visual design is like that. You can think of what you are designing as a movie with a cast. To tell the story, there may be a headlining star above everyone else – they are the most important thing. In a comedy or period piece there may be an ensemble cast and the setting may play a key role. In a buddy film there are two stars who are usually very different, and it's the chemistry between them that makes the movie interesting. When you think about your poster or site or whatever as having a cast, and you identify elements of the design in terms of a cast of characters with "roles," it forces you to think about hierarchy and the relationship between elements, which is a good thing. When a film has a lot of big stars, the script has to be written to use them wisely, where they have the most impact.

My student nodded like I was speaking a language that he understood, which made me feel relieved. I have no idea how he's fared, but I used the movie analogy yesterday to help get myself unstuck on a website design. It has helped me, and I really hope it has helped him.


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