The Value of Simplicity

by Ben Nichols, Senior Designer/Animator

In recent years, the development of cinematic-quality television has raised expectations for show titles to new heights and elevated it in public consciousness. Look no further than Ryan Gosling’s viral SNL skit, “Papyrus,” poking fun at the font choice for James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar. Of course the skit was a huge hit with us type design nerds, but it also reflects an increased viewer awareness of film and show titles as a distinct art form.

When I lived in Australia, there was a show called Hungry Beast which produced some great content on the ABC (our version of PBS). The show was full of segments — some funny, some more serious — but always with an informed opinion and very engaging. The show’s most famous segment was a viral hit called Stuxnet, which makes clever use of simple 3D, type, and graphic metaphor to deliver a highly detailed narrative that easy to grasp. It was created by Patrick Clair, the Australian Creative Director behind the award-winning title designs for True Detective and The Man in the High Castle.

What I have long admired about Clair’s work is the simplicity with which he tells a story, which is deceptively difficult to do, but really what good design is all about. As our Creative Director Rosie Garschina writes in Design Still Matters, one of Dieter Rams’ principles strikes it best: Good design is as little design as possible. The solution is simple, elegant, and often leaves you thinking, “Of course!” It’s something that I’m constantly reminded of at Trollbäck+Company, where our core philosophy is, “Discard everything that means nothing.”

As designers, the techniques we employ should be working in the background, not reminding us of their presence. This is evident in some of our past title work like Hysterical Blindness, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict and Life, Animated, where thematic content directly informed our stylistic approach. Another great cinematic example is the way George Miller directed Mad Max: Fury Road, with the focal point always at the center of frame. It makes it easier for the audience to follow the intense action, and results in a deeper experience as we are pulled into the visuals.

Still frame from opening titles of “Life, Animated”
From opening titles of “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict”

Across disciplines, this sort of creative approach takes confidence. It’s easy to get carried away and feel like we are not doing enough, that whatever we are doing will be better if we keep adding more details. But there is a reason why really good restaurants don’t have pages and pages of menus, and why the best athletes always talk about going back to the basics. Without a basic foundation, everything else becomes noise and detracts from the performance.

In this way, technology is starting to play the role of distractor in our lives. The clarity of messaging is being distorted by the quantity and frequency at which we are fed content. We are constantly surrounded by screens, checking our phones and using apps which are not designed for efficiency of use, but to keep us on the hook for as long as possible. Similarly, the desire of filmmakers to innovate and utilize technology is understandable; but there is also a fine line between creating an immersive experience and a distracting one. It’s a question that’s also being raised in the context of title design’s renaissance and continued relevance.

Still frames from the opening titles of Se7en, from “The Art of the Title.”

I was originally drawn to this industry (and to work in the United States) because of the film titles for Se7en. At its heart, the concept is so beautifully simple and is the sort of work that continues to inspire me. I have a joke with one of our producers that everything great in animation hinges on “whole pixels.” It’s not meant to mean very much, but I try to approach the work we do with the mindset that best things out in the world are often simple executions just done really well — all the way down to the last pixel.

(Hot tip: Speaking of technology, Time Well Spent has some great tips to help us regain some of our time and make our interactions more efficient and meaningful. As they put it, “The answer isn’t to abandon technology. The answer is to change the technology industry to put our best interests first.”)