We read once that human eyes lose their sensitivity to color over time, which is why memories of the green grass and blue sky from your toddler days seem so, well, green and blue. Fading eyesight explains why old people in Florida wear plaid pants, and perhaps why U.S. sports fans have now become dolts that watch 3-D television projections of the game while they sit in the very stadiums in which the game is being played.
Now we certainly don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys watching people in spandex bump into each other; in some countries that is not tolerated but here in America we call it football. Our point: The emergence of cheap, giant-screen, flat-panel screens is starting to encroach on reality. Panasonic chief Toshihiro Sakamoto opened CES this year with a 150-inch plasma called, fittingly, the Life Screen — not to be confused with the Life Wall, another Panasonic treat that covers entire walls of a consumer’s home. (Imagine it: “Honey, I told you to turn off that wallpaper!”) Light-bulb-maker Philips has been playing with screens that intercept reality via clear glass, so you can look outside a window or wave your hand to grow a shade tree to block the neighbor’s view.
No real news here except the fakery of colored images has been arriving for a while; U.S. office workers spend one-third of each day in front of a screen moving numbers and words around, then drive home to watch the tube. The Super Bowl is almost here and consumers are talking more about the upcoming ads, to be shown on screens, than the game itself. The players meanwhile will dance around a moving yellow line on the field that doesn’t really exist, except for video projection and GPS camera technology giving fans at home a clear view of where the ball needs to go. Reality, it was lovely; we’ll miss you when you’re gone.
Edward Tufte is the most brilliant American mind on visual information. He’s a design guy with a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, wrote the landmark books on graphics, has shown how the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster may have been caused by a bad PowerPoint presentation, and lives in our home town in Connecticut. Our friend Andy Jukes said once that Edward Tufte writes like the voice of God commenting on the works of humankind.
But we like Tufte best because he coined the term chartjunk.
Chartjunk is all the stuff you see in graphics that distracts you, either sloppily or deliberately, from the real data. The most common use is to present elements slightly out of scale to create a misleading point — as in the example above, in an airport sign conveying that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of an energy issue. If you really look closely at the piechart, the advocates are a slight majority — perhaps 57% to 43% — but the visual heft feels more like 3 to 1.
Advertisers of course do this all the time with other coding, such as photos showing too much sex or copy showing too much joy over products that are really commodities. You could say most humans engage in exaggeration to be more charming at parties or more employable at work. If all language is stretched, the question then is how much is too much — and if it really is an effective tool in manipulating your audience’s reaction.
What will happen to communications when every wall, window and countertop is a computer screen?
Andy up in Vancouver points out Philips, mentioned in our last post, has even more super-cool technology that turns clear glass panels into video screens. So, for example, you can turn a window into the illusion of a shade tree growing outside. By waving your hands.
Freaky. Cool. And details in Spanish, but you’ll get the drift.
Robert Krulwich tells an eerie story on NPR tonight of David Stewart, a man who slowly went blind over five decades due to a hereditary disease. Then one day in his 80s, Stewart was listening to a book on tape about George Washington’s adventures on the Hudson River. And right before him, a sailor appeared in the room wearing a blue cap, looked him in the eye — and winked.
Scientists say this type of extraordinary hallucination is common among people who, like Stewart, once could see but now are blind. The phenomenon is similar to amputees who feel the aura of a missing limb. The newly blind have vivid impressions of people, flowers, art, that are amalgams from their memories. Apparently the cells in the brain that once received signals from the eyes have nothing to do, so may misfire and tell the mind that new sight images are arriving.
Stewart’s brush with phantoms reminds us that all impressions are interpreted in the eyes of the beholder. Two consumers can see exactly the same commercial and one may laugh while the other is affronted. Even the logic of communications can be disputed based on our differing histories. Will the use of a racial image offend? Is the business deal a conflict of interest? Are you really sure we look good in plaid?
Next time your marketing team or agency falls into debate over which creative message is right, think back on David Stewart, and remember: Everyone will see something slightly different. There is no clear image. Because every mind designs an answer based on its prior perspective.