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What great films can teach you about design

by Leigh Gamon

A good film can entertain you, but a great film takes your breath away. It pulls you in, gathers you up and drives you to experience something entirely new.

So, how do we borrow from this expert medium of storytelling to emulate the same level of experience in our products? We look at the way the work is composed – we explore the beauty in the details.

As a film major at university, I wrote essay after essay analysing the way that films would take a theme and bring it to life it through the script, acting, cinematography, editing, set design, costume design, soundtrack, colour grading. I became adept at picking out the way a film could carry emotional weight through the details. Many others in my course balked at the level of analytical objectivity we had to take when watching a film, but I became enraptured with this exercise.

Storytelling is an art form and the level of detail each department puts into their craft is inspiring. But it is the way a director composes these details into a whole that truly mesmerised me.

Working as an Interaction Designer in product design we go through a similar process - we define a problem and build a solution into a holistic vision. This grand vision, otherwise known as the brief, is our equivalent to a film’s synopsis. But a great product doesn’t simply design itself, it needs to be composed. There‘s no time to relax in the implementation stage. This is the moment the details become the hero.

Find the gaps in the vision

There will always be gaps to be found, so do this earlier rather than later. Bring a microscope up to the project and look at the puzzle pieces, see how they are fitting together and ask yourself:

Is every element contributing to the ultimate vision?

When you watch a film where the director has expressed their creative vision, you have a strong sense of the story they’re trying to tell through the medium - even if it isn’t explicit in the script. You can achieve this same effect on a project with the key members of the team by creating design principles for the product that everyone agrees to and passionately stands behind. When there’s a joint vision in play, it’s far easier to ensure consistency through every part of the design process.

How will we measure success?

In advertising we’re rooted to measures of success, but rather than feel weighed down by this we need to remember that we’re not creating art, we are creating design. It’s our responsibility to make products and advertising purposeful, useful and memorable. By creating measures of success from a client and user perspective, we tease out the gaps that need to be accommodated for.

Recognise the details that matter

When the holistic vision is rock solid, it’s time to look at the details that will best underpin the overall message. Some of the best scenes in a film are when the focus is just on one or two elements, such as the editing or the cinematography to the exclusion of the other visual and auditory stimulation.

One of the most famous scenic moments in film history is the dance scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part. In a surprising turn of events for a heist film, the three main characters stop to dance in the middle of a café. This scene is memorable because it’s unexpected. It’s filmed in one long shot for five minutes, somewhat awkwardly and seemingly without purpose. There’s no clever editing, no expert dance moves, no strong vocals to the music. But what it manages to achieve is a purposeful disregard for cinematic rules and the perception of a natural orchestrated moment, leading to a beautiful scene that many directors have tried to recreate in their own works. Tarantino’s dance scene in Pulp Fiction is one successful example. The effect of this emotional resonance is almost likened to what we in advertising might call a brand piece.

Not every UI design needs to have a loud CTA, detailed visual design or complex code. It needs to have whatever elements will speak the most effectively to the audience. Focus only on the elements that pertain to that experience and cut out the surrounding noise.

Compose, compose, compose

A product has a hundred tiny moving parts. These need to be composed together in the right way to be meaningful. Just as an editor will pull together the footage to tell a story, we need to pull together our elements to create an experience. It’s only natural that each department gets wrapped up in their particular skill set. Everyone is on a strict deadline and tight budget that leaves little time to take a step back and assess whether or not the product is achieving its goals. This is where Interaction Designers play a vital role: we put the user at the forefront. We stand up for our invisible audience if they fall out of the project’s focus.

We use the research and data to provide inspiration for the details in our design. Sometimes this is the tiny detail in having a progress bar to give the users a sense of progression, or subtle animation to indicate feedback to an action. We collaborate with designers, developers, planners and copywriters to bring these details to life.

The details are not the details, they are the design

The details of a design are often considered as extras, as out of scope items to be left to the very end. But it‘s the details that create the emotional resonance for the user. It’s the details that show our audience’s needs are being heard. It’s the details that tell the story of our product that drives people to come back time and time again.

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