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What Can Designers Learn from Film?


What Can Designers Learn from Film?

Alex File

I hear ya, Reader (my one and only reader)… “Why are you talking about film on a design blog?"

Well, I have recently been finding myself watching a few episodes of the YouTube series, Every Frame a Painting, and it got me thinking… “Storytelling, embracing greater narratives, framing, attention to detail, research guiding the content and constant consideration of how the audience might react, or interact, with each element?”

Hey, I thought, "many of these concepts associated with great filmmaking, can also be applied to approaching the creation of much broader creative outputs.” Then I started to notice that a lot of the techniques I'd adopted in my own filmmaking endeavours had incidentally been improving my own approach towards design, and vice versa.

So, I decided to start writing this post; a quick discussion on "How filmmaking can help inform design."

As disciplinary silos are broken down, it seems that in all creative endeavours there's often a great amount that seemingly un-related disciplines are teaching and learning from one another. Approaches, methods and techniques from a range of fields very frequently overlap and reciprocally enhance one another in sometimes obvious, but often obscure, ways. 

In practice, these crossovers are either overtly acknowledged; for example the traditional relationships between writer and advertiser, visual designer and artist, or they at their most interesting can be as obscure and far-reaching as the relationship between urban planner and biologist. 

Film’s relationship with design is, on the face of it, pretty superficial. ‘Designers’ play their part in formal job titles such as production, costume, graphic and communication designers. However, the skills and approaches that professionals in each rung of the creative process within both industries undertake are in a lot of ways very similar.

The way I see it, within both endeavours the ultimate outcome is the effective composition and integration of a wide range of elements into one coherent, compelling and meaningful product; whether this be a Hollywood blockbuster, arthouse documentary, mobile application, healthcare delivery service, or even a toothbrush. The question is, how can we— as ‘makers’— coordinate all the moving parts in order to synthesise our desired intent; affecting real human emotion and behaviour.

In an established sense, film has always informed design in important ways (and vice versa). Sci-fi and future-looking filmmakers have always been primarily concerned with asking the questions “What if?” and “What next?” Their act of envisioning future cultures, societies, products and interactions has been a character of film since its beginnings. The pre-figuration of futures by filmmakers and artists has informed and influenced design, society and culture for over century. Now, I won’t continue down this track within this post, but for a bit more on this topic within the current context of design studies (if you are at all interested), you can see my Design Fiction article here.

What I want to focus on is how the construction of a film be viewed from a design perspective? Should content be the actors? Should IxD be the action? Does that then mean that usability is cinematography? It’s an ambiguous and abstract notion. But for this post, I will focus on the process. More specifically, how does the process of filmmaking cross-over in ways that can add value to design; and how do the values of good design and the accepted values of great filmmaking coincide? 

Should content be the actors? Should IxD be the action? Does that then mean that usability is cinematography?

When it comes to process, as much as I search, there is not consensus on what the filmmaking process entails. It’s a progression of stages, yes, but as a creative process there it little in the way of shared thinking. It’s collaborative and has its formal processes that are followed, however to a large extent, it’s done in whatever way works best for the identified challenges for each production.

I guess this can be put down to the narrow-application of filmmaking— in that the purpose is to create films— and the complex, often bureaucratic nature of big-budget production. I welcome any filmmakers who want to disagree with me on this and highlight any distinct creative processes, but I couldn’t identify any. So it seems my process crossover argument is dead in the water already.

So, instead I will simplify this post and look into what design and film have in common.

Good design/film...

1 // ...pays attention to detail, composition and symmetry. 

Constant iteration, evolution and self critique of every single decision and detail is the way to develop and improve. Never be precious over what you’ve created, get rid of superfluous elements, keep it lean and ensure every part is meaningful. Have a high appreciation for the meaning attached to all motion. 

Play it back, take test footage; in design terms… prototype. 

2 // guided by research.

"You don’t decide good design, users do” — Mike Monteiro

As any designer worth their salt would know that you never design for yourself, but others— that sort of self-indulgence should be left for the artists. To the same extent, a film is made for its intended audience and they are the ones who decide whether it’s good... or not. In order to achieve this, your first aim should be to understand.

With no consideration for the audience or the place of the film within its greater context, you’re lending yourself, or your creation, to no one. 

3 // ...focuses on storytelling. 

Let's look at mobile designers for example. They should see the big picture of an app and simultaneously understand that its value lies in every interaction the consumer has with it.

Within this theme all creations should have purpose and intent within the ecosystem of people, products and places in which it sits. Understand the grander narrative, as well as your own. 

4 // ...understands people. 

Now this is a broad one. But empathy with users, with audiences and with characters is what embeds meaning and value. On top of this, designers and filmmakers must have a great appreciation of subtle differences and cues in influencing moods and behaviours and how these vary by cultural and contextual nuances. 

5 // so much more! 


I feel like I’ve started a discussion that I do not have the knowledge or experience to fully explore. So I invite anyone to continue this line of thought, build on it as much as they can, or tweet me @lexanderfile!