Okay class, we have a movie today. Somebody get the lights please.
This 20-minute 1953 film from renowned married designers Ray and Charles Eames falls into one of my favorite genres: contemplation of a familiar subject as seen from a removed vantage point. In this case, the subject is communication, with a focus on binary information.
The film may not teach you much you didn’t know already, but it’s a showcase of ways to build an explanation with engaging imagery. It’s also a prime example of an excellent explanation trick — illuminating multiple subjects by casting them as different versions of the same thing. The film shows how painting, speech, telegrams, printed images, text, computer programs, etc. all have the same core components: information source, message, transmitter, signal, receiver, and destination. Focusing on the fundamental similarities cuts through potentially confusing details to give you a solid model for understanding each one.
On top of that, it’s loaded with the warm, warbly woodwind music of classroom films (in this case, composed by the late great movie score composer Elmer Bernstein). If you were a kid in the 50s through 80s, you probably know this as the music of education. Or desk naps.
History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.
The movie is a showcase for Pictorial Communication Language (PICOL), German designer Melih Bilgil’s “project to find a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication.” The idea is to come up with an extensive icon set open to anyone communicating through diagrams. The Picol site is partially under construction, but includes a blog with more information.
Of all my worldly possessions, my car is the thing most in need of explaining. Like just about everybody, I don’t own anything else nearly as complicated, and don’t put nearly as much trust in any other machine. Every day, I count on all these intricate pieces banding together and keeping me alive as I zip along at ridiculous speeds. This is something that deserves to be fully understood.
United sort of ran out of steam when they applied exploded view to their Employee Scholars program — it’s just an un-technical drawing of a guy’s head with various objects in it that expand and grow labels/explanation when you roll over them. Kind of a let-down after all that awesome. Also, I wish they’d included some sort of permalink system inside the animation, because then I could be pointing you to the coolest parts of it.
And now, a musical interlude. This video from Norwegian band Röyksopp doesn’t exactly explain anything, but it uses the tools of good explanation to thrilling effect. And it illustrates nicely how much data, complexity and remarkable thinking flows through daily life.
The artistry is clearly awesome, but the delicious topping for me is that they bothered to make so much of this stuff accurate (or at least accuratish). For example, the escalator cutaway is highly detailed and right on the money, and it’s only onscreen for four seconds. There’s a good bit of playful exaggeration too — the parts of the ear are drawn correctly, but sound waves trigger a bouncier cartoon chain reaction than you would actually see.I’ve had a hand in building animated cutaway diagrams before — the type of thing that makes up only a few frames in this video — and fitting the details together is no small chore. Kudos to those responsible, the French production company H5, according to Wikipedia and others. (My kudos are way late, apparently. The video already won best video at the MTV Europe Music Awards, way back in 2002).
I found a bit of interesting chatter in the YouTube comments on the video. Several posters took it for granted that this was a depressing view of mundane modern life. I really don’t see it that way. Normally, I do get discouraged by musical montages of workers filing into offices or even families chaotically taking off in the morning (a staple of supposedly cheery breakfast treat ads). The notion that life is hectically repetitive for no discernible reason makes me queasy. But this video was actually uplifting to me.
For one thing, I love to be reminded that there is so much to learn about even incredibly ordinary stuff. After all, there aren’t really many boring things, just boring people. It’s good to turn on the awestruck wonder whenever you can. Also, I’m comforted by the idea that even though there’s a lot of complexity under the surface of everything, I could actually figure out what was going on if I took the time to sort through the detailed, readily available information. It’s the same comfort I get walking through the library or bookstore. I may not want to learn all about building construction at a particular moment, but it’s good to know I could pick up several books on the subject (and understand them) if I were so inclined. Nice to have signs that the roads are open.
PS: I intended this post to be pure praise, since 100% of our posts to date have had a bit of finger wagging in them, but I can’t ignore the bad splainin’ on both Röyksopp and H5’s Web sites.
Röyksopp greeted me only with this and an album promotion pop-up:
Which details did you need? Shoe size? Favorite Pop Tart flavor?
H5 gave me little more:
Very strange to have such dead-end home pages in this day and age.