If We Had Listened To James Burke In 1989, We Wouldn't Be Here Now
This week, I dutifully lined up and bought my copy of An Inconvenient Truth (which I greatly enjoyed in the theatre — it’s just a really well-made documentary.)
What I found especially sad is the “before and after” photos, particularly those of great national glaciers and Mount Kilimanjaro.
I remember watching James Burke’s “Connections” series on PBS as a kid - as a family we were addicted to science programmes, all that Science International, Tomorrow’s World kind of stuff. David Suzuki was like that distant uncle in BC who came to visit through the television.
Around 1989 Burke put together a one-off special called After The Warming, which incorporated sophisticated computer graphics to show the history of global warming from the perspective of a TV presenter in the year 2050. It was a clever narrative device which allowed him to show a series of progressively worsening warning signs which (the show being British, and thus realistic) people ignored until it was too late to do anything.
Literally every topic Al Gore covers in An Inconvenient Truth was covered in this special, which aired some 16 years ago. At the time, of course, it was slagged off as hyperbolic fearmongering. If we’d have listened to him then, might we be in such a mess now?
You can find this documentary in two volumes on VHS; there still might be some new copies out there but most are used. I don’t think it was ever re-released on DVD, so here’s hoping someone out there does the right thing and puts it up on YouTube or Google Video.
In the meantime, check out Who Killed The Electric Car?, which also hit DVD shelves this week, and Robert Newman (ex-Newman & Baddiel)’s one-man show A History Of Oil, available in its bicycle-generator-lit entirety on Google Video.
Notes from the road
Andrew Potter picks up the exact thread of something I wrote about. In his column in the latest issue of Macleans, Potter bemoans the tendency for Québec politicians and public figures to view the rest-of-Canada as a monocultural monolith — when it’s really more of a food court. As I’ve argued, there are several nations within Canada and it’s possible to have poly-citizenship; joining the umbrella organization of Canada doesn’t negate membership in any of your other tribes — in fact it even enhances, protects and reinforces those memberships by providing common civil amenities and institutions.
Rutledge: The Thin PMS185 Line
Andy Rutledge, whose opinions I respect (but occasionally differ with) publishes a good rant about the introspective, award-chasing, client-indifferent nature of the AIGA mafia.
I’m not sure I agree with (or care about) some of the political stuff he mentions in this piece, but the crucial point is that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the designer’s role. Instead of helping clients achieve measurable results — higher sales or greater market penetration or solving other business problems — they’re still focused on the decorative-arts, academic ivory tower end of things.
Rutledge is a user-experience designer, and I often ask the same question he does when there’s a decision to be made about a project: “What tangible benefit does this have for the client / their customers?”
Questions of ease of use, readability, and accessibility are also balanced by business judgements — the effectiveness of eye-tracking, heat-maps, effective promotional tools, mailing lists, e-coupons, conversion rates and so on.
I have met and interviewed lots of designers, many fresh out of school, who seem to have no understanding of what their role in business is.
In school, they’ll learn the Adobe Suite and Macromedia Flash, but instead of learning problem-solving, they’re encouraged to be self-expressive, to make unreadable posters and busy, clever little Flash sites as part of their portfolio projects, that take forever to load and require a working knowledge of the Myst series of games to navigate.
I’ve seen very few design school grads who had things like a solid “standards-y” xhtml/css site, traditional typographic projects like newspapers, books, manuals or brochures, or proper statistical tables, charts, infographics or plain old graphs in their portfolio.
So — if you come to me with rave-graphic T-shirts and dense, layered, “thornamental” poster designs, it may be impressive, but it isn’t going to help me decide to hire you.
Design schools need to teach information design, strong traditional techniques and more than a bit of business 101. After all, who’s going to be paying their graduates’ salaries but businesses, and how can they help them if they don’t understand how they work?
Rutledge mentions a kind of anti-business, leftist ideological perspective among designers. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I do know people, even some with successful design businesses of their own, who have a tenuous grasp of what marketing really is or how it works, beyond the fact that Adbusters told them it was sinful, and therefore they want to avoid sin…
Anti-business? I don’t think so. I also think Rutledge makes the fallacy of equating Republican with Business, like there are no Greens or Dems or Liberals who are millionaire businesspeople… The greater problem is perhaps indifference or condescension to the needs of business, stemming from misinformed counterculture thinking. From my persepctive, today’s generation is either apathetic to the ‘business is evil’ meme, or at best is engaged in trying to transform their clients’ businesses by introducing green / ethical solutions as part of their practice.
That said, in general, I agree that there’s a shocking lack of general business, political and economics knowledge among the design community. There’s a willingness to focus solely on small-picture, western-white-liberal-guilt issues or get tangled into The Big Idea, as Andrew Potter wrote recently for THIS’s 40th anniversary issue (scroll down for his bit, “small ideas”), vs. doing system-level thinking (is the root cause of global poverty Western overconsumption, or failed states, the World Bank and the IMF?)
That said, it’s always a two-way street. Businesses, for their part, need to understand the designer’s role, as was recently memorably phrased by Jeff Croft; “Bring me problems, not solutions.”
Even today, in 2006, companies still waste their own time and money by asking for “solutions” without even knowing what the original problem is; and the usual result is Flash intros that annoy and bore. (Today’s example: chaoshats.com. Whoever did that site really ought to hand the money back to their client, because no customer’s going to sit through a five-minute loading screen just to get to page one.)
Stéphane Dion Leads the Liberals
I really wouldn’t have guessed this one: After initial strong showings for Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion is the new leader of the Liberal Party, and the new leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. His platform put Kyoto front and centre (apparently, he even named his dog Kyoto —!) Now, if they win, they’ll have to follow through on it. Though, the Liberals had 13 years to fix things before now….
of course, this now screws up my brilliant idea for a CBC parody political show starring Ken Finkleman as his character from The Newsroom, now turned to politics and having become the prime minister in a sitcom-esque turn of events…