23 september 2011

On visual quotations and clichés

ILLUSTRATIONS CAN PARAPHRASE other pictures. Pictures which the audience is supposed to know and recognize. You can produce powerful visual communication when standing on the shoulders of those who created iconic images, like this famous photo from World War II:

THAT THE IWO JIMA PHOTOGRAPH carries a lot of symbolism is beyond discussion. Over the years, a common agreement has been established as to what it communicates, almost turning this image into a statement. Thereby, using the Iwo Jima composition as the basis for a new illustration will provide you with an obvious advantage: Part of the story has already been told and memorized.
You can put a layer of new information on top of the old one. And if your analogy is appropriate, the humouristic aspect which paraphrases often contain can further reinforce the message.

HOWEVER, as the very nature of iconic images is that just about everybody knows them, there is a risk that just about everybody will use them. Which might gradually turn these new illustrations into visual clichés.

ANOTHER ASPECT for you to consider: Can we be sure that people will actually recognize the original image which we are paraphrasing? With the Iwo Jima photo, that is something you will hardly have to worry about. But as a media professional, you should keep in mind that your frame of reference is much broader and much more diverse than that of your average reader/viewer/user. You have seen – and probably thought about – a lot more images than your audience has.

THIS MORNING, I was confronted with a front page illustration which I had no idea was a visual quotation, as I had completely forgotten about the original.
Consequently, I was puzzled … as it is a very strange illustration.

TO MAKE THINGS WORSE, the paper did not even help me with a headline that might have led my thoughts on the right track. The meaning for which I was searching had been stowed away in the very last sentence of the caption: Information’s top story is about a new kind of trafficking, male workers who are being traded for forced labour.
When I realized this, I thought, what a ridiculous, dysfunctional way to illustrate that story! Five men (who might very well be members of the Information editorial staff) lying in fetal position and photoshopped into something that should probably have resembled a pack of meat but looks more like a wrapped condom. The notion of slave labour was pretty far away, to put it mildly.

I THOUGHT THIS IDEA STUNK so badly that I had to show the page to a group of copy editors who had applied for my Magazine and Feature Layout workshop at the Danish School of Media & Journalism. They were just as mystified as I had been, and we all agreed that this illustration did not work at all.
However, after a minute or two, one of the sixteen people began wondering aloud. The image vaguely reminded him of something. And a quick Google Image search on the word trafficking solved the puzzle:

INFORMATION was paraphrasing an advertisement from a three-year-old campaign against trafficking. The original illustration is great – much more professionally executed than today’s copy, and helped along the way by the fact that naked women put closely together in a plastic wrapping look a lot more like tiger prawns than fully-clothed male journalists can ever resemble raw meat, or whatever they were supposed to look like.

OK, ENOUGH of dissing Information – a paper which should in fact be praised for constantly experimenting with visual communication, and for succeeding much more often than it fails. My point is a different, more general one:
Visual quotations are great communication tools. Beware, however, of two pitfalls:
1) If people are exposed to an image too often, it may develop into a visual cliché. And
2) If people do not understand what you are quoting, they probably won’t understand what you are trying to say.

07 september 2011

White space: Good taste, bad design

SINCE FEBRUARY 2011, Berlingske Tidende have been using a new design for their website (which, at the same time, changed its address to B.dk). The new design concept implies a generous use of white space.
In the Big Old Book of Good Taste in Graphic Design, white space is doubleplusgood.
But that book was written before the internet. And here you see what lots of white space may lead to – on a website:

OF COURSE, the white space policy is only one of the reasons why today’s B.dk completely falls apart.
Another part of the explanation is that Berlingske – like a lot of other newspapers around the world, worrying about how to make money in the media landscape of tomorrow – has decided to allow advertising on every available square millimeter of the computer screen.

THE RESULT IS DREADFULLY UGLY and confusing … and apparently, it does not even represent a viable business model. According to a recent Poynter study, ”clickthrough rates on banners are lower than low – 0.1 percent to 0.04 percent by various measures”.

WHO KNOWS, perhaps one day even advertisers will find out about this. And hopefully by then, more meaningful and visually appealing ways of distributing the limited screen space between commercial and editorial content will emerge and, eventually, prevail.
Until then, I guess we will have to live with sites like B.dk … or go somewhere else.

01 september 2011

Reality sucks

WE HAVE A NEW RENTER. Maj and I now have the privilege of sharing our premises with not only Rasmus and Wolfgang, the men behind The Potential Project, but also with Susanne and Snæbjörn who are running a successful little book publishing company by the name of Hr. Ferdinand.

NOW WHY DO I TELL YOU THIS? Well, you see, today
Snæbjörn was portrayed in the PLEASURE section of the newspaper
Børsen. And we were all pretty surprised when we saw the magazine front page, as well as the seven inside pages devoted to this story.
Not so much because of the words – they form a loyal and interesting description of an
interesting man. But having come to know Snæbjörn as a warm, kind, and very relaxed person, we were wondering why this photographer had chosen to portray him as … no, I think I’ll leave it up to you to judge what kind of impression Snæbjörn leaves on these pictures.

Well, yes …
Snæbjörn has a nose, and he certainly works with books. Usually does not carry them out into cornfields, however.

ON THE FOLLOWING PAGE, someone has poured a lot of water over Snæbjörn.
By the way, the clothes he’s wearing look suspiciously different from his ordinary wardrobe … and not just because they are wet
The caption says: ”Best-selling books are not always pieces of art. Many are journalistic stories. But sales and art can easily co-exist’,
Snæbjörn says, mentioning the Japanese author Haruki Murakami as an example”.
OK, now I understand why he is soaking wet …?

HOWEVER, ON THE NEXT SPREAD he is even wetter. Caption: ”The publisher behind Hr. Ferdinand is the son of an art-loving priest. ’I was raised with a great passion for music and inspiration from culture. My dad always wrote his preachings listening to Bach’, Snæbjörn Arngrimsson says”.
In case you are wondering about the swimming pool, you’re not alone.

Snæbjörn wonders, too. ”But perhaps the photographer heard the old anecdote – not true, but anyway – about me meeting Dan Brown in a swimming pool in Slovenia, leading to our contract for The Da Vinci Code”, he guesses, exerting his open-mindedness.

LAST PAGE, last photo.
And this is what Snæbjörn looks like in real life:

SO WHAT’S MY POINT? Well, it looks as if the challenge of trying to understand the true personality of an interesting, intelligent, kind, many-facetted, successful man, and trying to visually convey this broad variety of human qualities to Børsen’s readers, does not appeal to our man behind the camera.
He seems to find it much more stimulating to make up entirely his own story.
Following that ambition, the ”photo artist” ignores two facts which I (contrary to him, apparently) find important:
1) In no way do these photographs relate to the story. And
2) In no way are they reflecting the actual human being which they were supposed to portray.

BUT WHAT THE HECK: Reality sucks, anyway.
Let’s make it all up.