Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from

The Color of Laziness

I was reading this article about bad trends in current movies and was stuck by one thing in particular. The author is talking about how modern movies are digitally color-corrected by genre — horror movies are blue, unreality is green, and so on. He concludes with this passage:

… directors have realized these colors are a no-cost way to create atmosphere without, you know, having to write a good script or hire competent actors. These colors are a visual shorthand for various emotions and ideas (yellows seem hotter, blue makes a scene seem lit by spooky moonlight, washed-out grays are depressing). In other words: It’s just laziness.

This is an interesting idea, that color can be the tool of laziness. We have thought a lot about the psychology of color and how greens mean nature, and red means love, and white means pure. But what about the ramifications of thinking this way? What about the dumbing down of how we communicate by using colors as simple shorthand for more complex ideas? Films are enormously complex systems of meaning and story synthesized within aesthetics and visual narrative. What if the filmmaker is not skilled at juggling these various signs and signifiers as they tell the story? Not to worry! We can — especially now — very easily adjust the color of the film. Knowing how to effectively tell a story that resonates with an audience becomes less important than knowing how to manipulate the medium to provide a false effect.

Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg created a movement in the 1990's called Dogme 95. The idea was to make pure films without special effects or overbearing post-production. This was a reaction against increasingly prominent technological tricks used in filmmaking. Some rules include things like filming only on location, only using actual sound recorded during filming, and a host of other limitations. This idea of “back to basics” is directly in opposition to the effects-laden opuses of modern Hollywood directors who churn out mindless detritus.

I wonder how we can apply Dogme 95 to graphic design? I think for design it is less about “no computers” or “no effects” and more about being authentic. On more than one occasion I have been asked by a student how to make a simple physical effect digitally. “How can I make a coffee cup ring stain on a piece of paper with Photoshop?” My answer? “Get a cup of coffee, a piece of paper and a scanner.” I think that the tools we have available to us now are nothing short of magnificent, but it comes with a caveat: when it is so easy to make anything, it is too easy to make nothing good. The authenticity of how we make, how we create meaning and engagement becomes more and more important as the skills to do so get more and more muddied inside of the tools.