Artwork in the Age of Data-Driven Design

I spend much of my video-watching hours on either YouTube or Netflix. Or, I think I do anyways. I missed the wave of YouTube becoming a dominant cultural platform, and as a result, I still feel awash with confusion whenever I go to the homepage. The interface is more or less fine–staid, you could call it–but the content itself usually presents itself as somewhere between somewhat off-putting and visually baffling. It’s not always the case, but it often times is.

I don’t consider myself too old or out of touch with the inherent culture of YouTube necessarily (though this article may itself prove that I am), and I don’t believe that the culture of YouTube in itself is specific or introspective enough to validate these specific anti-aesthetic decisions. What I mean is, I don’t think that the typical (forgive the generalizations, I could be very wrong about all this) content generators of YouTube are visually sophisticated enough to consciously decide to make something unpleasant in place of what otherwise would be visually pleasing for their existing audience. That the bombastic nature of their graphic design is not driven by the same unifying ethos as the equivalent would be in a punk scene, despite similarly effective visual results. That it is neither aesthetically, nor ideologically driven. My completely uninformed speculation is that they–given that they all have access to sophisticated analytical tools–are purely responding to the data they have in hand. That loud imagery beats out quiet, and big messaging overshadows modest.

I don’t have any negative feelings towards loud imagery, or bombast in general. I grew up on a visual diet of skateboard graphics, early 2000’s videogames and anime. The nutritional content of which could be distilled into categories of bold geomtric sans-serifs, incongruous paint splatter textures and colour palettes akin to what you could find on the lowest shelf of the cereal aisle. I still have an affinity for design that embraces that kinetic quality and visual excitement.

Where I do actually take a stand is the impulse to follow data driven results with no respect for the quality of the work itself. I am not shy about my bias towards craft. When I see a piece by Aaron Horkey, Martin Ansin or Teagan White I’m consumed with envy. That I can see the effort and the care that this calibre of artist puts into their work is never lost on me. I think we have a natural appreciation for the investment of others. That’s why we love monumental structures, that’s why we still admire the line-work of the renaissance masters. In Make Happy,  Bo Burnham’s most recent comedy special, there was one line that resonated with me on this topic specifically. After reprimanding the audience for shouting to the stage, he explains “I’m trying to immortalize something I worked really hard on”. So when I go to sites like YouTube, landmarks of self-expression, and see a grid of flashy, grotesque imagery and slapdash visual choices, I feel cheated by the creators and by the platform. Not everyone is a graphic designer, but everyone is witness to graphic design, good or bad. In so many other artforms, most notably publishing and music, the aesthetic quality of the packaged work is so intrinsic to the work itself that the idea of releasing a book without a cover or an album without artwork in itself is a striking statement. Online content for the most part skirts these traditions, and to fill the void we invite compromised and unconsidered visual noise.

What is a cover

Whenever a new medium disrupts an existing one, part of the cultural values of that supplanted form are excised as a part of the transition of power. In 2012 iPad came into its own, and paired with the continued growth of the Amazon Kindle, it looked like it would upend the publishing industry. Craig Mod wrote a piece on the changing nature of the book cover. He illustrated the new information flow of the book reading experience, which often bypasses the book cover entirely, and of the necessary aesthetic shift from detailed, tactile works, to more graphic and immediate design decisions that cater best to black & white screens and to the Amazon search page, rather than to the 5″ x 7″ paperback in the physical store. He spoke of it not as a reduction in quality, only a reduction of detail. Donny Phillips, the graphic designer responsible for the album cover for The Hunter by Mastodon, called the trend “an aesthetic shift” and not “a dumbing down”, when speaking to The New York Times on the topic of the new landscape for music graphics. The point being that it is not about lamenting the loss of the larger canvas, like the 12″ sleeve or cinemas one-sheet, but instead thinking critically about how to make meaning within a new set of constraints. A company like Readmill could make the decision to entirely remove artwork from the equation in their reading service, as a gesture of appreciation for artwork that would be poorly adapted for a 4″ screen size, or as in the music industry, individual artists could learn towards a simplified design, knowing that their artwork will dominantly live in a space not larger than 1″ x 1″.

However online video as a medium seems somehow separate from this larger conversation about reductionist graphic design. Despite the obvious synchronicity with the music industry and the publishing industry, there is almost no conversation about the graphic design of film and TV when it comes to the same issue. My particular gripe is with Netflix who seems to be the most notable when it comes to the conversation of marketing and the artifact of a cultural product. They are very transparent about their marketing techniques, though anecdotally, I am convinced that either the data is flawed, or that their internal metrics have little relationship to the end users experience. To explain better illustrate what I mean by that: Raise your hand if you’ve spend more nights looking for something to watch on Netflix than watching something on Netflix.

The company has been vocal about how and why it choose specific artwork for specific audiences. The goal is to create as much engagement with each piece of content as possible, and to do so they first A/B test the fuck out of their content and then over time, apply what they’ve learned to their content catalogue. What they have learned is that

  1. Complex emotions drive more engagement than stoic or benign expressions
  2. Visible and recognizable characters are more appealing than ambiguous or distant ones
  3. Villains in particular generate a positive response
  4. The more people are in the frame, the lower the engagement.

These are naturally very interesting and logical responses, but it leads to a dramatic reduction in creative specificity in the artwork, and transforms films that began their lives in theaters with spectacular graphics, into a vague impression of the same film. It’s how we end up with this:

and this:

and this:

I don’t believe that any of these original posters are great works of art, but they are all making visual choices relevant to the films at hand which is far more valuable than optimizing for clicks if you are actually trying to communicate what the thing is that you want people to click on. If I’ve never heard of these films–or any other in the catalogue–why would I choose one over another. Is woman-on-plane-in-sunglasses less or more interesting than man-in-chair-with-gun? How do you communicate the value of your product when everything is optimized to the same metrics? How does your audience identify what aligns with their interests if context has been stripped from your content offering?

The reality is that not all content should be marketed and sold to the same degree. A quiet indie film may not have the same potential audience of a Marvel Movie, and it shouldn’t be presented under the same terms. If you are marketing a small Joe Swanberg film the same as a giant Michael Bay movie, I think the values of those two works have been vastly misinterpreted. Furthermore, you risk creating scenarios that invent morally troubling issues, that don’t need to exist based on the perceived value of artwork manipulation.

The music industry doesn’t suffer the same dilemma, since so little of the value of their product is based on the associated visuals. And because the music industry is spread across so many platforms–from the music itself to music videos, merchandise and live performances–the weight of the artwork impacts proportionally little of the overall success of an album. So you can be complicated, minimal, weird or hyper-literal in your artwork and the overall marketing of your product will not be inherently compromised. However, when the success of your product is directly linked to the appeal of a very small thumbnail, I can understand where the fear would kick in, and the reliance on analytical results would outweigh the more subjective considerations of the thing you are trying to market. There is I believe a way to design a system that allows for both.

Mubi, the streaming video service in asymmetrical competition with Netflix has an elegantly designed solution that successfully allows for both metrics based decision making to live alongside a more context-conscious presentation of video subject matter. They present a single frame from each film, with a templated overlay of the film title, the name of the director, the country of origin and year. All films stand on equal ground to the other available offerings, and the imagery selected should distinguish each film from each other.

It’s a middle ground between the decision to generate bespoke designs for each work, and the decision to skirt the conversation all together, and genuinely assists the user in deciding what they should and would like to watch.

I’ve been troubled for a long time about the absence of a voice that speaks to the value of visual design in software. That we have a landscape that is so visually sophisticated when it comes to user interface paradigms, but so visually remedial when it comes the actual content that is presented. I hear troublingly little from would-be designers who have no interested in, nor any intelligence around how their work actually appears. That decisions are made thoughtlessly based on the encouragement of statistics, not based on what those statistics actually refer to. That the things that we watch, spend time with and seek out have a value inherent to them beyond their salience within an algorithmic system, and that the means through which we present them should better reflect that value.