Bob Appelman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University
   Design Cultures
Transitioning through 3 Design Cultures: Graphic Design, Film, and Television

Being the son of an opera singer, my education at home exposed me to nuances of musical form that prepared me for a musical career. By the time I entered college, I was already playing in college ensembles, so it seemed natural that I would continue instrumental music as a profession, but as much as I loved performing and music in general something was missing. Music seemed too one-sided, and since I had explored photography through high school, I wondered if the visual side of art would be more satisfying. Most of my experience as a photographer was journalistic, and although I appreciated Ansel Adams’ work, I had no idea how to approach such dynamic expression of subtle grays, pitch black shadows, and dazzling whites. The field of graphic design appeared to offer a more formulaic approach to visual communication, so I left music behind and launched into the field of graphic arts.


Graphic Design
The visual arts, and the study of them, was a truly different world than I had ever experienced before. Images were so immediate, accessible, and personal; yet they had the capacity to be shared in small group, and also with the masses easily. The fine arts library was filled with those “over-sized” books that were rare in other libraries, and you could get lost of hours upon end loading your mind with solution after solution of image challenges. Groups of us could get together and compare and contrast our reactions to image upon image, which helped immensely to guide the development of our judgment of what “worked” or what did not “work”. The art history classes walked through what had worked in different times and cultures, and what “classic” solutions were. It did not take me long to realize that I had to develop some sort of strategy to remember images that I personally did not care for, but that my professor valued enough for me to remember. Now it became work to memorize visual attributes of a nose, the style of a pose, the detail of a fabric, or the color pallet used to paint a background scene. Visual attributes, style, impact, time period, and the parade of artists who created them was the language that we spoke to one another. It was like a huge scavenger hunt with everyone sharing the gem they had discovered. Soon it was time to create things ourselves, but much to our surprise, we started with excruciatingly simple form. We took a series of black circles and a big white square and attempted to communicate “fear” or “happiness” with just those basic elements. Some students objected, wondering when they would get to use all of these subtle color and texture options that the artists we were studying got to use!

We then encountered “the critique”. Even with our little circles and squares, some individuals produced assembly’s that “worked”, and some didn’t. Mine initially didn’t, but I had to agree that the spirit captured by those that did were more closely aligned to visual forms of the “fear and happiness” that we were trying to emulate. How did those students come up with those solutions? Why didn’t I think of that? Oh well, on the next project with 50 lines of varied thickness to be placed in a circle to express the emotion of anger, I might be inspired! Slowly within a year’s time of gradually increased complexity of visual attributes and more complex messaging, a gestalt became apparent that allowed a new way of looking at images and visuals. Instead of the surface meaning and most blatant generalizations of form, we began to see the underlying structure of the form and how the artist was combining all of the thousands of variables of those circles, lines and tones into a unique assembly of meaning. It was almost as if we designers were part of a special order that had super-enhanced vision that could see through any artwork to the core of its existence, and ultimately into the mind of the creating artist. We all felt special and more “aware” than “normal” students… that is until we had to move into another art field, like print-making, or ceramics, or (cringe) free-hand drawing. In each one of these new media fields, there was a period of uncertainty where one had to “break the code” of what criteria was important, or what new hand-to-eye coordination must be developed. Eventually, through the same process of trial and error, we looked at successful examples of form and tried to copy them first; and, if we had success at that, we would venture into doing something different. There was always someone in class who was way past the experimental stage and when the critique singled them out as the unique “winner” of this episodic contest all the rest of us chastised ourselves with the traditional “why didn’t I think of that?”. We also grew to realize that some individuals were simply more talented than others in some area. This was not as debilitating as one might think because the mental balance was made by believing that we were just as talented, but in another area.

This continual struggle of searching through volumes of imagery hoping to load my brain with enough ammunition, so that when I was confronted with a design problem, I conjured up a successful solution was exhausting. This, combined with the competitive pressure amongst those much more talented than myself, caused me to question graphic design as the best professional path for me. After three years of intense study I was only just beginning to catch a glimmer of the design process that must emanate from within the designer first for a solution, and then reach out to external sources as guides for refinement. Also, just as I felt limited with music, I felt limited with only the visual channel for communication.

Growing up surrounded in an environment of the culture of opera had an effect of making me aware that it takes all art forms, especially those in audio and visual, were necessary to bring such an expressive experience to stage. Furthermore, being in a family where all of these artisans from each craft area regularly appeared at my house, I quickly found that many types of people (and some extremely unique in their personas) must work together in their respective areas of expertise to create this experience. Although I found it difficult to imagine how such divergent interests could come together in agreement, I viewed the process many times during rehearsals and it seemed fascinating. Having developed skill in music as well as the visual arts field, I felt I was ready to launch into the study of a medium that could combine more of the skills that I had gathered – something like film.

Film Studies
I really didn’t want to be a Hollywood type film maker, but was driven by the desire to use film as a medium of communication, and I choose educational film production as the genre to master. I was fortunate to be at a university where the top educational film production unit in the country existed, so I just moved from one end of campus to the other for my Master’s degree. However, I moved considerably farther from graphic design culture when I moved into motion picture design. Because of the multiplicity of the art forms and skills necessary to build a film, the question became “how am I going to pass my idea through all of these disciplines and groups of craft people and still maintain my vision?”. In graphic design, I was in control of everything from the concept through the execution. Of course I was also the only one responsible for the outcome during critique, but that was ok since if I did achieve resonance between the desired goal and the visual form chosen, all the glory came my direction. Now in this new collaborative art form, the product was only as good as the weakest link in the team, which caused me now to focus on the communication flow instead of my previous focus on ink flow in my rapidograph pen. Initially though, I did not buy this concept of depending on others to do my art. I felt that I could be a jack of all trades and master of all, because I had already reached mastery in music and done pretty well in visual arts, so why not script writing, cinematography, audio engineering, animation, film editing, and the ultimate – directing. I found that I was not the only student trying to answer this question, and the task was to dive into each one of these to see how well you did. Some of us did a good job treading water while others sank or bobbed to the top, but unlike fine arts where we experimented with the other forms of media, there was an expectation of the film student to gain moderate competency in all these forms. Also, unlike the fine arts culture which did not expect anyone to share their proprietary technique to accomplishing a visual effect, in the film culture it was essential to share technique and the entire thought process that went into the finished form. This launched all of us into a collaborative learning style and fostered the collaborative development style necessary in this medium. All of us quickly found that each craft discipline was tremendously deep, and that specialization was the only way to achieve the level of mastery necessary to result in the final product we all envisioned. From this ever growing realization came respect for individuals who decided that they needed to follow this “calling” into one area or another and subsequently depart from the path of directing and editing. Perhaps this was similar to finding ones’ talent and pursuing that path. From a respect for excellence in all the craft areas and the people in them, we were able to imagine a situation where a team of skilled craftspeople would be the best way to create a film project. It was not until I entered the profession as a film director that I experienced this to be absolutely the case.

When I entered the profession as a film director/editor I found the roles that we all collaborated in, to be crystallized and rigid. We were not a union shop, but we operated that way. I was not allowed to touch a camera, a light, a piece of sound gear, because we had experts doing all of those jobs and they were MUCH more skilled at doing it than I. However, they were also perfectly happy with doing nothing unless I scoped out the plan and delineated what I wanted them to do. They certainly had the expertise to make good decisions and not wait for me, but the rules were that everyone had to do the job they were hired for, and as a director, it was my job to let everyone know what to do. After a while I learned that I could involve them into a discussion and get their opinion after I suggested a solution first. That way, I did my job, but when I asked them for their opinion of it, it helped to foster much more collaboration. The respect of different craft areas that I mentioned previously was paying off big time in creative input.

I can’t leave the discussion of the film culture without talking about the special area of film studies. It is in film studies that one begins to think and create as a director, but the create part is not always the goal in film studies. This area is also the domain of the critic who only studies film, but has never touched any part of the production process. It is a world of late night viewing of Eisenstein, Murneau, Lang, and Griffith. It is the dissecting of films by Porter, Hitchcock, and Antonioni, and marveling in the productions of Ford, Selznick, and De Mille. For the critic it is an opportunity to analyze form and couple it to the reactions of the audience, and for the budding film director, it is the opportunity to couple technique and form with meaning and emotion. After having done all of the steps, from writing a script, hiring talent, dressed and lit the scene, set up the camera, directed the talent, shot the scene, edited the film, selected and edited the music, and created the talent and graphics, one looks at another directors work in a much different light than the normal viewer. Friends stopped going to movies with us because afterwards we completely dissected the film and completely bored them. It was wonderful to be working in a medium that would have impact on people to such an intellectual and emotional way. To a director, there is no greater reward than to move someone emotionally through your film, and it is by orchestrating the intricate marriage of all the art forms that it is realized. I finally felt fulfilled and challenged.

Television Production
While I felt challenged to push the communication of subtle emotional and motivational messages in film, the world of television pushed the immediacy and spontaneity of life. In film we focused on the exactness of framing, angle, and lighting of every shot, while in television we focused on capturing the most content in the shortest amount of time. The world was on the clock, and it was divided into 29 minute segments with the smallest being a 30 second spot. In film, 30 seconds might be one slow pan down a staircase ending on the face of the young starlet, but in television it might be the entire production. In television the medium was consumed, but in film it was savored.

This stress on immediacy, efficiency, and systematic editing created a culture that focused on technical excellence first, and content and continuity second. What I felt first moving into this new culture was separation. The director was separated from the talent, because they were out on the studio floor and the director was back in the control booth. I was separated from the camera and audio crew, because they too were on the studio floor or off in another booth, or I may never talk to them personally at all. There was only a shallow script which gave the director only an inkling of what was going to be happening … thus there was a separation from the content as well. An attractive aspect of television is its immediacy of form creation. It is real time and very similar to a race. The gun goes off and you do your thing and it’s over.

Because of this demand for thinking on your feet and having to quickly solve problems while in the midst of the production, the culture was one of trying to anticipate all possible events that needed to be dealt with. Will this person freeze up on camera, will they speak loudly enough, will they look directly into the camera, or will they forget it is even there? Studio work took a lot of preparation, but the production was easier with all the control of lighting and sound, but remote shoots were unpredictable and special crews had to be assembled who knew how to respond in many different types of emergencies.

We didn’t spend as much time looking at other video products, instead we studied technique and equipment options. Getting the equipment to perform became primary, and the video engineer told you when your life was ok or not. We developed systematic formulas for videotaping and editing all kinds of sequences to speed up the process, and we were rewarded for getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. In film we had to wait a couple of days until our “dailies” were returned, but in video, we simply replayed the tape. Special effects in film cost a bundle, so they were used sparingly and only seen on completed films, whereas video special effects were cheap to produce and available whenever anyone wanted to use them. As a result, when the content got boring, it was natural to stick in some special effects to “spice things up”.

There is nothing about the television medium that makes it less rigorous than film. It appears to be a cultural design value difference which is driven by the consumable nature of television. The time invested in the creative process must balance with the return on that investment. If the audience just wants the television to be a portal to some reality, then it behooves the director to frame that reality in the simplest and least distracting manner. This is quite a different mandate for the film director who must constantly attempt to elevate each scene to the highest level of the art form.

My path through music to graphic design, adding film, and expanding to television has been a productive journey for me. I have branched out into may other mediums including the newer interactive ones, but all of them deal only with the two channels of communication – audio & visual. Within each design culture the values related to creation and analysis in each are contingent upon what their mediums dictate, but there are base values common to all. So as I venture now into the new virtual environments of games and simulations, I am looking for the same constants even though the design cultures of this new media are markedly different.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005