Around March last year a friend of mine showed me an article about why the video game Angry Birds is so successful. The author Charles L. Mauro CHFP (Certified Human Factors Engineering Professional), was attempting to provide a cognitive scientific report on why the game has been so unbelievably successful (now with physical merchandise doing the rounds, and a feature film in the works). These sort of reports remind me of the guy who used to lease us our old studio space in Manhattan who was always trying to think of what he used to call “the next YouTube.” His desire to get rich through some cool new internet startup idea, rather than just sitting down and working hard on playing to his strengths, used to confound us a little. Similarly an analysis of what makes Angry Birds ‘genius’ with the intention of perhaps helping others reapply these findings on a project that could also be as successful, seems fairly futile. I can guarantee you the makers of Angry Birds didn’t apply this ‘science’ when creating the game. They simply wanted to make a fun game and used their intuition to do so. Mauro’s article talks about the ‘mystery’ behind the game as if it was all so calculated. We all know that when you’re deep in the development of a project like this, these things just come about as part and parcel of making it more fun to play. The objective logic that comes with so many levels of artistic ‘criticism’, is so often just an afterthought in the minds of those actually making something. The simple, prevailing fact remains that the brilliance of these things comes purely from the subconscious when making something good. A subconscious that has been trained hard by years of enjoying other art forms in all their many facets. A subconscious that is firing on all cylinders when you’re stuck into development and are becoming one with the creation of the thing.
The most interesting part of Mauro’s article, and in fact the part that lead me to get into an argument with my friend about it, was his ‘How things look’ subheading in which he states the following -
“This leads to a more interesting question: How does visual design impact success in the marketplace? I routinely get this question from clients who are undertaking large redesign or new development projects. Decades after it first surfaced in automobile design, visual design is still the most contentious aspect of designing compelling user experiences. Designers (mostly of the UX stripe) routinely sell clients on the concept that the visual design (graphic style) of a given interface solution is a critical factor in success. This assumption seems to make good intuitive sense. However, the actual working principle is counter-intuitive. In most user experience design solutions, visual design (how things look) is technically a hygiene factor. You get serious negative points if it is missing, but minimal positive lift beyond first impression, if a user interface has great visual design. When we conduct user engagement studies for clients (not the same as usability testing), we routinely see data that strongly supports this theory.”
Needless to say but I found the implications of this statement pretty unsettling and was reminded starkly of Bill Hick’s Advertising or Marketing comic routine (watch it below). Particularly Mauro’s last sentence which almost entirely echoes Hick’s line, “You know what Bill’s doing now, he’s going for the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a big dollar, a lot of people are feeling that indignation, we’ve done research, huge market. He’s doing a good thing.”
The following is a slightly polished version of what I had to say in reply to my friend, regarding Mauro’s points about visual design. It’s relevance to the IFP, filmmakers in general and the making of art of any kind will I hope be evident.
Mauro’s argument perhaps stands given the Angry Birds exact context, but largely speaking he’s dealing with a more more profound and complex issue. His point falls flat when you try to apply it to what I’m going to call the ‘Rags to Riches‘ argument. This argument understands that first impressions are certainly of value and that the actual experience of using something is fundamental, but in the end the psychological impact of the visual is the most important, lasting and hard to measure. The ‘rags’ in this case being of course the perceived immediate impact of good visual design, and the ‘riches’ being the powerful long-term, psychological and sociological effects of said design.
I agree that when Mauro is perhaps simply asking, “Why is this game so successful? Look how much money it made – here’s how to potentially make that money too,” then sure, what he’s saying could be of use. However when you consider how depressing people’s neighborhoods, streets, homes, offices, cubicles and online user experiences can be on a daily basis due to skimping on visual design for the sake of ‘what works’, and you then see this later turning into depression, anger and ill-will towards others, you realize we’re talking about something much, much bigger. Something which arguably could affect financial prospects more subconsciously and seriously, albeit at a slower pace.
Mauro continues later in the article to say -
“Even more important than good or bad visual design is appropriate visual design.”
I think this is the key factor here, and that people confuse this issue way too often. Angry Birds has a very appropriate, high standard of design. Without it it simply would not appeal to the millions who’ve paid for it. Guys think it’s pretty cool, girls think it’s cute, it makes kids laugh, it spaces out adults – all of this is absolutely requisite and in this regard Mauro’s article absolutely nails many of the elements that make it so enjoyable to use.
In the same fashion if you were going to design cheap housing in some backwater town, would you use materials that are going to stain, droop, crack and crumble after a few years? You know full well no one is going to revisit this place for repairs and that those living there can’t afford to repair it either. Why make anything that will rot both physically and psychologically everything around it? If there isn’t enough money to make it well, it should not be made at all. To quote the architect Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead -
“Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window, and stairway to express it.”
It’s about long-term psychology as much as it is about immediate success, and without discussing these decisions you can’t knock one thing and say it’s simply not as important as the other. As Mauro notes you can’t accurately put monetary value on visual changes, but in the same way that you do things to help the environment (that you also can’t see directly dying as a result of your actions), it’s wrong to imply as Mauro does that it’s simply a ‘hygiene factor.’ That hygiene factor is what I’m calling the long-term psychology of a design, and what Howard Roark calls a building’s soul.
So, to correct Mauro somewhat, I think it would be smarter to state that, “Even more important than good or bad visual design is appropriate visual design, and what is appropriate design is multi-faceted and entirely respective of context.”
Whether you like it or not, your entire world is affected by the look and feel of the things you engage with for long periods each day. It’s a designer’s job to try to overcome employers who make it less attractive and ‘more functional’ simply because they can pay you less to do this job and make more money. These people are idiots who don’t have a long-view of their general, daily, psycho-visual imbalances. I say this of course with the proviso that greater function doesn’t always come with a guaranteed decrease in visual quality – it just seems to so often be the case. The simple fact remains that cutting corners makes people suffer and if you can run away with the money and ignore the consequences, you’re a selfish charlatan. You are a part of the problem and not the solution.
I can appreciate that Mauro is largely appealing to those who want to make a buck, however this is bad advice because it assumes that the only value of good design is related to products and their markets. To reiterate once and for all, it’s our responsibility as human beings to remember there’s a lot of people on the planet who have no control over the look of the world around them and who are ruled by those who want to ‘make a buck’. Those of us that must suffer living beneath billboards towering above, promising soulless dreams, the garishly coloured junk food wrappers sitting in the gutter, the television commercials selling drugs for pains that don’t exist, the dying buildings built with cheap materials slumping under the weight of their own short lives, the angry faces and the lack of respect for anything. These people aren’t idiots. They know better than anyone that the look of the world around them massively affects their subconscious state of mind. They know it when they walk out of their rotting front door, glance at the grey sky, the paint peeling from the walls of their neighbour’s house across the street, scrape the ice from their car’s windshield with the splintering lid of a margarine tub, curse as the car won’t start and their foot goes through the rusted bottom of it as they lash out in anger. They know it when some of them later get drunk and walk around smashing windows, keying car doors, spray-painting church walls, and beating people up – all scenes I’ve witnessed in my years growing up in England in the suburbs of Cambridge, 3 years at University in Manchester and later living in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. It’s a level of rage that I can support and forgive when places like that are your reality. Try getting mugged at 8:30am on your way to work, as I was in 2008, and being told by the cops that there’s no point in reporting it.
Some of these people hate the world around them. They know what the end-game is better than the thoughtless assholes who make the products, create the ads for them and leave those ads gathering mould on some rusted old bus-stop sign, 23 stops out of town in some relentless nightmare of a burnt out suburb. The sorts of places that otherwise only filmmakers dare frequent in order to make their gritty melodramas. We have got to remember that every small gesture toward making things simply functional, that disregards how much ‘greyer’ you are making the user’s day, is a very valid negative point.
There’s a lyric from the Pulp song Glory Days that comes to mind -
“Oh we were brought up on the Space-Race, now they expect you to clean toilets.”
Of course these arguments mean nothing until you can tie them back to money. This is the hard cold fact one must accept if you’re going to make any changes to the world these days. There are no gods left to use as any real threat to your actions, and the perceived ties between actual art and big money are mostly hanging by a string. Mauro wrote his article for people who want to make money. I am writing my article for free, with no apparent financial gain for anyone. So let me throw my marketing hat in the ring for a second here and point out how a long-term view of these things can and will actually make you money, as well as making the world a better place.
Think about how things will look retrospectively if you actually put in the time to make something visually beautiful as well as functionally sound. We only ever look back at the things that looked and performed fantastically, and cherish those particular things with heaps of nostalgia and warm hearts. We never look back at the ugly, embarrassing things that made lots of money in the same way. This might seem irrelevant, but listen up – these days heaps of money is made by harnessing that retro-active nostalgia and reaping what you can from that. More than ever we are focusing on remakes, reboots, retro-fashion, older sounding records, aging our photographs, and 80s-looking video game pixelated aesthetics.
There’s no denying that there is money in making things built to last, making things a canonical representation of the visual style of the era you’re living in and making people feel respected by giving them the finest. People want to love their past, they want to look back at previous decades with a smile, they want to relive that in every way they can and they’ll buy it.
It all comes full circle ultimately.
Everything from the look of a video game to the look of a bus-stop is relevant to people’s daily experience of the world. If you give people one moment to think you don’t care about them and that you’re not offering them in some capacity the best of what life has to offer, then you’re responsible for the slow, aching decline of civilization, the inevitable death of your company and, to paraphrase Fight Club, Brad Pitt pissing in your food at the formal business dinner where your boss raised a glass to you and offered you that huge promotion.
In the end, whatever your craft, the moment you’re thinking about the money, skimping on the quality of the design and focusing on your immediate financial gains, the worse you are making life for everyone else, and eventually yourself. So the next time you’re arguing with your designer, give this some thought. Could be they’re just a chump doing lazy work, but it could be that they’re fighting for a larger cause, one they subscribed to at a younger age when they made the connection between beauty and a better life. Rags to riches.