Periodical — 7

I spend a lot of time looking at websites; it’s a big part of what I do for a living. With practice, I’ve learned to look at the products of interaction design in a variety of different ways — on the basis of formal design considerations, usability, functionality, accessibility, and, of course, creativity — in repeat, systematic reviews. I only realized recently that I’ve gotten to point of doing it without thinking. This is the product of having made a discipline of it for years — of deliberately focusing on one issue with each pass, making organized observations and notes, and repeating.

I learned the discipline of observational repetition when I was studying film in art school. In one of my “live action” studios — a course where we focused on looking at film and video work (not animation) from a technical and critical perspective — our instructor would have us screen a film repeatedly, focusing only on one aspect of filmmaking at a time. We’d “screen” for cinematography, then for editing, for sound, lighting, script, effects, and so on. It was exhaustive, but not exhausting. Because when you focused on just one aspect, the film would once again open up and new experience and meaning would emerge from it. There are some film sequences I’ll never forget because of what I learned from that course to observe in them over repeat viewings — the elevator scene from Wall Street, the opening sequence of Rear Window, the lighting of Barry Lyndon, the sound design of Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, the cuts of Don’t Look Now, the camerawork of the flight scene in Andrei Rublev. So many wonderful scenes, sequences, and stories.

I’ve held on to that practice of repetition since — I still love to re-watch things, often more than seeing something new — and have applied it in my professional design work ever since.

Film plays out in time, making simultaneous noticing nearly impossible. I’m certain that there are images, sounds, and ideas that I’m aware of now only because I watched an entire film or just a scene over and over again. In interaction design, time is an element, but not an inexorable one. Speed often depends upon the viewer, not the content being viewed. That means you can even more quickly replay something, retrace your steps, or juxtapose images in different ways. In fact, nearly every usability study I have run has taught me that observation is anything but linear. That makes the critical disciple even more essential.

Next time you look at a thing on a screen, go back over it a few times. Pay attention to its text, then its color, then its composition; review it for how things react; consider the system underneath it; blow it up and shrink it down. With each pass, you are certain to immediately notice something special about it and/or something lacking. Use this when you make something — it will level up your work right away.

(I still enjoy looking. I feel lucky that looking is such a consistent part of my life).

Written by Christopher Butler on November 25, 2023,   In Log

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