Reflections on Design

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Santiago Calatrava, Malmo, Sweden

I am putting together a new series for Discovery on architecture around the world with Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker.

One of the great things about the television business is that it exposes you to whole worlds you previously knew nothing about. Take a camera in your hand and it gives you a license to go stick your nose in places you have no real business being, and talk to some of the greatest experts in the world on a given subject.

So now I am learning about architecture.

Take a look at some of these buildings. They are remarkably beautiful. The more amazing thing about them is that they are not drawings or ‘conceptual designs’, like ‘concept cars’ at the auto show. They are real. They have already been built or intitiated. This is all very real.

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Sir Norman Foster, London

The designs are radical, bold, engaging. You have seen them yourself., if not here, elsewhere. Think of Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao. They capture your imagination.

Now think what is involved in building something like this: the planning, the cost, the design, the concrete, the steel, the titanium. Every staircase, every window, every air conditioning duct. These are massive projects and massive commitments to an idea of design. They represent a deep belief in both the future and in an artistic statement. They are a radical departure from the predictable box, cost effective and dependable though it may be.

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Jeanne Gang, Chicago

This brought me back to thinking about television news.

Here we have something that is far less difficult to assemble than a building. It is far more plastic. It is not cast in stone or steel or concrete. Yet when we design and ‘architect’ television news, we are fearful of being ‘too creative’. We assiduously repeat designs and patterns that have ‘worked’ for us for a generation now. The studio, the anchors, the throw, the weather and sports.

It is boring.

The risks in building a Gehry or a Calatrava are enormous. The risks in redesigning a television newscast, really radically redesigning it, are minimal. Yet we don’t go there. The most we are willing to risk is replacing Dan with Katie. Not much of a change, really. More like repainting the front door than anything else.

When I start to look at buildings like these, and then I look at the final design for the “Freedom Tower” at the WTC, it saddens me greatly. What could have been (the original design by Liebiskind) and what will be are worlds apart. A bit like television news now. Boring. Staid. Blocky. Predictable.. when so much was possible, so little is delivered.

The reason, in the end, is the same.

Fear.

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Morphosis, Paris, La Defense, work just started.

So often in life we opt for the safe.

Too bad.

When you are too afraid, something great is lost.

9 responses to “Reflections on Design

  1. One of the reasons I can tolerate my job here (on the Arabic fringes of Media 2.0) is that there are so many construction sites to kibbitz and so much interesting architecture springing up out of the desert. Springing up right next to my apartment, that is! http://sandlander.blogspot.com/2006/11/higher-and-higher-in-araby.html

    Are there architecturally sensitive VJs out here in the Emirates? There need to be!

  2. Michael, you are a very intelligent person, above the average I’m sure, this is why I find it hard to believe that you think that whatever you are trying to do will rescue the television news business. Soon or later you will have to start admitting that no HD or extravagant production nor flooding the streets with VJs will help the current decline of television news. The business is going thru a natural readjustment brought not by boring news like you keep saying but by technological advances and changes in lifestyle. There’s just too much information and too many sources from where the information is coming from. Plus we have more entertaining and educational programming thrown our way than ever before to occupy our free time. We also have less leisure time than ever before. People work longer hours, longer commutes and they never really go home or on vacation without bringing their jobs along with them. The problem here is that the day is still only 24 hours long and the week still has only seven days. People have less free time and there are many more things to do and to see today than ever before. The public has become more calculating in the way they invest their free time. News was never intended to be fun or exciting, that’s was something created by the networks in futile attempts to attract audiences. The public do not want to see news, they have to see news. They must be informed because it’s part of our culture to be on top of what’s happening around the corner and around the world. It’s information not entertainment. You will have hard time finding a family gathering on the living room couch with a bowl of popcorn in anticipation of the 11 o’clock news.

    News is coming to us from everywhere but mainly thru the Information Technology. In my web browser I have 16 sources of news information in 3 languages and I could have hundreds if I want to. I have headlines in front of me all day long and with a click I can pick and choose what I’m interested in knowing and of course I can also get the same everywhere on my Treo. Not only news but I can get a traffic report in seconds and a live radar on my screen that tells me what the weather is doing right now and how it will effect my plans, not tonight at 7 and 11, but right now when I need it. By the time people go home at night they have their heads filled with information, they already know what’s going on in the world because they’ve seen it all day long. With so much to do in so little time, why should they waste their time looking at something that they already know when there’s so much more to see on TV.

    I’m sure that by now you are thinking that that’s the reason that you are pushing the VJ toward the web, not so fast Michael; that will not work either, not to the extent that you wish or predict it would be anyway. I can grasp each news item in one minute or less and be fairly well informed, in 20 minutes I can read about 20 events, if I add a 3 minutes video to each of those items I will have to dedicate another hour just to see the visuals of what I just finished reading and I already know. Most news is not really news, is actually after-news reporting because the camera in most cases wasn’t there when the news was happening. If I turn to the video of the recent G8 Summit what will I see, Bush and Putin shaking hands or walking together and the voiceover talking about the most recent missile crisis, great, I will waste 3 minutes of my time on that. On the other hand if the two leaders would end up in a fist fight over the missile crisis then I’ll click to that video for sure. In order for people to dedicate valuable time to look at a video clip, it has to be something worth their time to look. Trust me, a dating bar with ugly girls in London or a middle class heroin addict isn’t it.

    You are proposing to convert the newsroom from 10 cameras to 50, why? So we can have 10 times more news for the public NOT to watch? This is the problem that has plagued the television business since it’s inception, television executives will have to give the public what the public want to see and not what the TV executive want the public to see, including you Michael.

  3. You do raise an interesting point, Nino.

    Asking some hypothetical questions here:

    Is there a possibility that video content as we currently know it will cease and be replaced by something different – where hyperlinking video with other content will in a sense, replace the hair and teeth people that currently make up what we know as the news or other content? What if network broadcasting is replaced by the Outernet – where broadcast quality content is so pervasive that we no longer need Network TV as is its current incarnation – instead internet access providers increase bandwidth to accommodate full rez video content, set top devices like iTV, or other media center computers receive content that the user subscribes to, which is downloaded to their media PC’s hard drive (which will be in the Terrabytes range), then can be played back accordingly. Productions are then supported by embedded ads and sponsorship for companies who would benefit from a specific productions content.

    What if the shooters become a balance of talent, narration, shooter, and post production – for a specific style of content? There will always be a place for the more stylized productions that require more than the Solo VJ paradigm espouses, but I think to preclude the idea that a Solo VJ can’t produce quality material is narrow in its perspective. Certain projects won’t be possible due to the limitations of what is required for the end result (example – on camera talent walking the streets while talking – camera needs to follow talent – Solo VJ can’t be in two places at the same time, etc).

    If one is looking to shoot in a style that would be shown, for example, on Discovery Channel – but instead of a cable tv channel, a portal website replaces or is an option, which can feed full or reduced rez content (depending on their preferences), utilizing the Outernet and the increased bandwidth to allow people to subscribe to video content via search terms (underwater, whales, diving, etc) to view what is of interest to them. That is within the realm of the Solo VJ paradigm from what I have surmised so far.

    Your last statement:“..television executives will have to give the public what the public want to see and not what the TV executive want the public to see..” I believe touches on an issue we as content creators struggle with, which is giving people what they want (or think they want) to see.

    Do we as content creators have a responsibility to band together to teach visual literacy by limiting what they see, and as a result, teach them through higher quality content?

    Not wanting another flame fest here, I’m asking questions to learn more.

  4. No Cliff, this is not the end of television news it’s only trimming the fat.

  5. I’m going to stop posting here, it’s not fair to Michael to hijack his own place, my apology Michael. I think I have made my point on what I think of productions created by people with limited knowledge, there are no right or wrong POV, just opinions and results.

    Many have written to me directly suggesting that I start my own blog. That idea is currently under consideration and most likely will happen soon so people can communicate with me directly; it will have a direct link from EFPlighting.com. We are after all in the communication business.

    So let me end with this

    Cliff wrote:
    “What if the shooters become a balance of talent, narration, shooter, and post production – for a specific style of content? There will always be a place for the more stylized productions that require more than the Solo VJ paradigm espouses, but I think to preclude the idea that a Solo VJ can’t produce quality material is narrow in its perspective”.

    Cliff and others, I think I said it many times before right here.

    “What if” is not a business plan, in business there are no dreams. Dreams are good only if you can convert them into only solid business plans. You can’t take “What if” to the grocery store register. “What if” is only good if you are already proficient as a production professional and you already have established credibility in the industry and with your clients and NOW you are trying to do something different. These are the people that have succeeded as VJs.

    Remember this; VJs were not created out of the need for added creativity but out of the needs of lower budgets.

    Every “professional” that I know went to writing schools, they are trained and proficient in editing and most own extensive editing equipment. They can be the best VJ if they want to but they don’t want to. Personally I love to create images; I get a rush walking in a crappy empty room and within 3 hours convert it into something that you would be proud to hang on your wall. But I don’t like to edit and it takes me too long to write anything because I get too deep into researching. So I do what I like and what I do best and that’s creating images. After all, the first thing that you see when you turn your TV on are images, if they don’t grab your attention right away then you move on to another channels .

  6. Come back any time Nino. Your constructive criticisms and professional insights always welcome.

  7. Pingback: Greatness = taking risks : the x degree

  8. I believe you mean Santiago Calatrava.

  9. You are right.
    sorry

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