Why Size Matters

Creative: Why Size Matters

Forget Lee Clow. Creative directors looking for inspiration these days might instead turn to Godfrey Lundberg, an early 20th-century engraver who famously carved The Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin.

Lundberg's painstaking accomplishment will resonate with any director, designer or creative regularly forced to downsize his or her Big Idea onto tiny screens. In the age of smartphones, video MP3 players and the iPad, artists bred to dream in Imax are increasingly being asked to resize their product without diminishing their vision.

"Nobody ever went to art school thinking he was going to design for a space that's 100 pixels high," says Matt Lindley, director of innovation and brand engagement for Boston-based digital marketing agency SapientNitro. "We all want to be designing digital billboards in Times Square." But in recent years, they have had to learn to think smaller.

It's a scenario that the ad industry in particular has long seen coming. As far back as 2005, trade magazines and agency creatives alike started wondering how filmed entertainment would have to change in order to look good on a video iPod.

While many of the more hysterical predictions never came to pass -- thanks to phones with relatively large, high-resolution screens, we don't have to ingest all our mobile content in blurry, bite-size nuggets - content creators have nonetheless had to learn to work within a new set of parameters depending on the size of the screen their work will be viewed on, assuming they even know (more on that later).

First and foremost, creatives have learned to "keep it simple, stupid," says Lindley. "The smaller the space you're working with, the cleaner and simpler it needs to be."

For a producer of video content intended for mobile devices that means a tighter, more narrow approach to shooting. "The wide shots aren't going to be quite as wide, and you're going to play things a little closer in," says David Lang, president of Mindshare Entertainment. Cluttered, effects-laden images aren't going to read well on most mobile screens.

Similar rules apply to makers of smart phone apps - a point that Apple itself makes in its iPhone guide for designers. The very first recommendation in the guide is to use the screen size of 480 x 320 pixels "as a motivation to focus the user interface on the essentials."

"You don't have the room to include design elements that aren't absolutely necessary," the guide continues, "and crowding user interface elements makes your application unattractive and difficult to use." Such advice is fairly simple to follow when building an app from scratch, say designers. The trick is to make an app that does one thing well, and does it simply, and resist the urge to clutter the screen with decorative bells and whistles.

The problem is that most designers are not starting from scratch, but are rather creating content that needs to incorporate logos or other brand icons originally conceived for TV commercials or print ads. "Companies like to say, 'I want my logo everywhere,' " says Jason Hart, a senior art director with interactive agency Big Spaceship, which is based in New York. But "when you scale these things down, huge issues do come up."

Take, for example, the Starbucks logo, which has already been redesigned and simplified several times since it debuted in the 1970s (the original showed a mermaid with breasts exposed, a bawdy touch that had to be eliminated when the chain went nationwide). "Take that logo down and it looks like a green dot," Lindley says.
Still, clients are eager to apply their corporate branding to most any asset they produce, leading to familiar tensions with designers. "A lot of times they're battling against us in order to get their message out there, but we're fighting them to try and make the app the most usable, elegant thing for the device," says Hart.

Of course, different screen sizes bring with them different functions. What separates the screen on a mobile phone from one on a computer or a television isn't just the number of pixels, but where and how one is likely to be interacting with it. And that, as much as anything, dictates how one approaches the creative process.

There is a commonsense rule when it comes to screen size and attention span: As one gets smaller, the other does, too. That said, people have proven more willing to consume longer-form content on computers and mobile devices than many had once suspected. "We, myself included, made the prediction that everything would be reduced to very snacky, bite-sized content," says Richard Schatzberger, director of creative technology at ad agency BBH. "Who would sit there for 30 minutes to an hour and actually watch a TV show on a mobile device? That's a prediction we made that didn't necessarily come true."

There has been little research thus far into what effect, if any, screen size has on attention span. But Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, says that the mere existence of so many devices has a dimishing affect on our ability to pay attention.

"We are programmed to be interrupted," she said. "We're programmed to open a new email, to notice something flashing in the foreground of a screen. That's one reason why having small screens and lots of different gadgets does interrupt our rhythm."

While five- to six-minute Webisodes dominated Internet-exclusive content in the earlier part of this decade, the remarkable success of Hulu and projects like 2008's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog" have proved that people will sit through long-form content on a laptop. Which is not to say the rules aren't different. The next bit of entertainment is always just a click away online - or simply waiting in another window. This means less tolerance for advertising, which is just one reason that Hulu limits all commercial breaks to a single 30-second spot. That model has quickly become de rigueur among sites offering free, sponsored content.

It also means getting to the action more quickly, eschewing things like long establishing shots or, God forbid, opening credits. "Because people spend less time online on average watching content, you have to get to things quicker, so there's not as much exposition or back story as if you had a 22-minute sitcom," says Lang. "And you have to tell the backstory through more action other than through exposition" in order to hold those shorter attention spans. (This is obvious to anyone who downloaded the Dr. Horrible soundtrack, which kicks off with the grandiose but comically brief eight-second opening number, "Horrible Theme.")

Connection speeds will also have an impact on the structure of Internet-bound content, as home computer connections become more and more capable of loading large files quickly. This, as much as anything, has freed producers from having to shy away from creating long-form videos meant to be watched online.

Unless those producers want that content to be accessed via mobile devices - which they increasingly do. In that case, says Dan LaCivita, executive director at New York digital agency Firstborn, shorter still reigns. "If you're watching a YouTube video and it keeps choking every 3 seconds," you're not likely to sit through the whole thing, he says. "Figure out a way to make it a 45-second-long video so I actually watch the thing," he adds.

But length often takes a backseat to purpose and usability when creating content for a mobile phone, say designers. Again, this is where a device's inherent function comes into play. While people certainly use smartphones to watch TV shows or even movies - depending on the length of their commute or their stint in the waiting room - they more often use them to access practical information. As such, it's vital to create apps that get to the point quickly, clearly and with as little clutter as possible.

"You're trying to build things that people use every day," says Hart. "So decisions like, how many clicks they have to get through to see that content and in what order is the content presented, those decisions will make it or break it ... People are very fickle," he continued.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Hart, for one, says he appreciates the restrictions placed on him by the less-forgiving interface. "It makes you prioritize and simplify your message, and I think in a lot of ways that's a beautiful thing," he comments. "Especially when you're doing client work and the instinct is to say 'X, Y, and Z' about it. On a smaller screen you may only get to say one thing and you have to choose that wisely."

As an example, Hart points to a smartphone app Big Spaceship recently created for GE as part of its Healthymagination campaign called Morsel. The app, available on the iPhone and Android, simply gives a single tip for improving one's health each day, like, "Once you finish your next meal, don't eat anything else for at least  an hour."

"The No. 1 reason this is successful is simplicity," says Hart. "Every day you go and there's a new piece of content and it doesn't ask anything of you except to take part in it." The Morsel app is more than simple, however. It's personal, like mobile devices themselves.

Unlike TVs or even computers these days, mobile devices, even the iPad for the most part, are made to be viewed by one person at a time, and BBH's Schatzberger says that kind of insight is critical when crafting content for a specific-size screen. What situation are people generally in when they use that platform, and who else will be watching?

"Am I sitting on the bus or am I sitting on my sofa?" he asks. "Am I walking down the street or do I have five people around me? Am I alone or am I a 15-year-old kid trying to hide myself away or am an 18- or 25-year-old trying to show off? These kinds of situations - the moment you're in - are what dictate the appropriateness of content to screen size."

Environment will affect attention span, as well. "The more complex and fast-changing your environment is, the more you are interrupted in general," wrote Jackson. To put it in perspective, she noted that "even if you are watching TV at home, you look up and away from the screen up to 150 times an hour. We talk in terms like 'We're glued to the TV.' That's actually not true. Our attention is constantly broken, but it keeps going back because the TV is really good at capturing it." If that's the case when one is sitting on the couch, then just imagine the challenge of holding someone's attention on a bus at rush hour.

Unfortunately, given the ease with which content is moved from one platform to another these days, content creators must always bear in mind that work created for one size device is only a step away from appearing on a much larger (or smaller) one.

"Previously you knew that this TV ad was going to be seen on a nice plasma screen and I knew that this banner or piece of content for the Web was going to be seen there," says Schatzberger. But that is no longer the case.

The economy is only exacerbating the problem, as smaller budgets force clients to insist that all content be easily repurposed for nearly any medium. "What clients are saying - because of the way budgets are going - is: 'If I'm going to shoot something or create something, it's going to be an asset,' " and they're going to want to reuse it in other formats, says Lindley.

Each agency or studio seems to have developed its own largely improvised solution to the problem. At Firstborn, all content is shot in high-enough resolution that it will look good on all screens. And if they know something is going to be viewed on a particularly small screen, they'll wire frame out "almost every single possible screen size down to 176 pixels; so if you've got an old-school phone with a browser on it, it will still look good on that tiny screen," says LaCivita. SapientNitro's Lindley says he worked with a producer who walked around with a lens that helped him see what any kind of content would look like on a computer monitor.

The lack of a uniform solution to the problem is probably less an indication that there will never be one and more evidence that issues surrounding screen size continue to evolve. Given the inaccurate predictions from the previous decade, it makes little sense to try and divine where we'll be, or what issues creatives will be struggling with by the time the next decade rolls around. But it is a safe bet that the proliferation of screen sizes - and the iPad only adds to the chaos - will continue to challenge and inspire directors, designers and creatives for the foreseeable future. Luckily, consumers will continue to watch, regardless of how many pixels are on the screen. 


NOTE: In an earlier version of this story online and in the print version Matt Lindley was mistakely identified as being at Big Spaceship in one reference. He is with SapientNitro. Furthermore, GE's Morsel app is a part of its Healthymagination campiagn, not Human Element, as had previously been stated.
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