I miss filmmaking. It’s no secret. Nearly anyone who gives me an opening to talk about it in a conversation ends up with an earful. I miss it so much, that right now I’m putting together plans for two small film projects that I’ll be working on over the course of the next year or so.
One of my favorite things about my job as a designer has been the way it’s allowed me to hold on to and re-explore the things I learned as a film student. The parallels between filmmaking and experience design are undeniable. And as my view on experience design has developed, I’ve come to see filmmaking as experience design in the medium of moving pictures and sound.
In other words, to me good filmmaking is experience design at work.
It’s a process of determining how something, a story, should feel to an audience and then choosing the right components and techniques to create that feeling (I’m using feeling very broadly here it encompasses emotion, thinking, reaction, etc). It starts with a story, moves through screenwriting, into set and costume design, cinematography, editing, and finally previewing and release (There are many more elements too, but I didn’t want to write out the whole list here)
This week Peter Merholz came to a very similar conclusion, and many other people are talking about it as well. This is so friggin’ awesome!
But here’s the thing; let’s not stop at just thinking about the fact that they are analogous. There’s more to it than that.
Two years ago at Interactions in Boulder I gave a talk on applying filmmaking tools to design. Of all the content I’ve ever put together it’s one of my favorites. And I’m hoping to give a more expanded version of it a few times in the coming year.
Beyond just the similarities in structure, there are similarities in process and technique that we can learn from. For example:
Cinematography can teach us about the meaning behind how things move. There are cinematic patterns that have been used over and over again that help subtly communicate messages in a story.
And there are animation principles originally developed by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas that can help us better understand motion when dealing with non-physical elements like pixels on a screen.
Screenwriting can help us think about our content differently. Though I haven’t had as many opportunities to do this as I’d like, I have had a few occasions where I’ve been able to get project teams to think about the product we’re designing as a character. Even going to the lengths of writing a character sheet (persona) for it and then using it to write out a dialogue/scene/scenario between it and a user. Often I’ve done this with comics and it’s worked really well.
Thinking of a product this way can help better define a voice for it. And when done collaboratively, it does it in a way that a whole team can come to understand and refer to as we move through the design process.
Also from screenwriting comes the idea of the beat sheet. I talked about this in my Interactions talk. It’s primarily taught as a screenwriting tool, but as I learned in school, it can also be a great tool for directors in helping to keep all the moving parts of a film, and all the people involved, working toward the same goals for the story. I won’t get into it too much here, but in my experimenting with task flows, I’ve found it to fit really nicely, especially in interactions that involve strong emotions.
Then there is the aspect of editing. Now, when it comes to tools and techniques, this one is a bit more nebulous. In my experience both in design and filmmaking, this often comes down to philosophy and the editor’s eye and intuition. When I was in school, the biggest and most reiterated lesson in editing was “Everything in service to the story.” If what the audience was seeing or hearing on screen doesn’t move the story forward, then it isn’t needed. This could mean that you keep the footage of one scene playing while the audio from the next scene starts, because those are the elements moving the story forward.
Editing is a key skill in design. I’d love to see teams dedicate time in their process to step back and say, “OK, what can we get rid of.”
And lastly, there is the aspect of sound. In the digital world I feel like sound is the red-headed stepchild. Most designers ignore it, citing that we can’t rely on it, and that if we do, we run into accessibility issues.
And it’s not that that isn’t true. But as computing becomes more and more ubiquitous and not just localized to the machine you’ve got sitting on your desk, I can’t help but wonder if there are things we’re missing here. Just as many of the elements of cinematography and motion are additive, strengthening messages and information is subtle ways, so is sound design.
I LOVE this topic. And I’m so excited to see more people thinking about it. If any of you want to talk and share ideas on it with me directly, please get in touch. leave a comment, email me at adam at adamconnor.com or hit me up on twitter.
And if anyone is interested in my talk from Interactions, here it is: