Elements of design in a video

Let’s take a short video clip and examine what makes it so visually effective, or why does it make us watch it repeatedly. To be precise any piece of video that has Bill Murrary or zombie in it automatically keeps my attention but here we focus on its design aspects.

I will take a video clip from One of the playlists in Youtube which is dedicated to typography. Boring? No! (well, some yes) Shown below is the most intriguing piece of work using typography that I have ever seen.

What makes this video so visually effective? Aside of creative thinking, technical-wise it utilizes various shapes of letters in two opposite directions: the letters themselves, and the open space created by them. We might say they compensate each other, like in Yin and Yang. Here I will list example sequences from the video to highlight the usage of letter or lack thereof.

Using the open space

00:25 Trapped man
A “trapped man” figure is created by the open area between the letter C and E. The designer of the video creates a shape by closing the open space, thus reversing the relationship between background and foreground. The man-shape becomes more apparent when his eyeballs followed by his full body emerges in white color, making a stark contrast between the dark background. The large and small version of the figure creates both contrast and rhythm, even though basically they are the same.

00:38 The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Again, a clever usage of the trapped area is shown. This time, a face of a fox emerges by the area trapped between the letter M and V. The bright-red letters successfully separates the outside (background) and inside (Mr. Fox). Since the two letters are closely placed, we can easily close the gap between the letters and imagine the inner area as an isolated shape. Another type of closure occurs here – we only have the fox’s eyes as his visual clue, but we naturally imagine the rest of his face (nosetip, whiskers, earbud, so on). This segment tells us the importance of the eyes for our recognition. Wiggling Mr. Fox’s ears just by adjusting the letter “M” is a nice bonus. It is only a slight move, but works effectively because the other area stays still.

Using the letters themselves

00:44 Lettered ships
We see several vessels with their major parts constructed by various letters. This time, instead of using the open area, the letters themselves come into play. To create a figure, sometimes a single letter is scaled up ($ as the mast, T as the anchor), and sometimes small letters are placed repetitively (m for a window, i for oar). This section tells us that relying on the original aspect (shape and size) of the material (letter) is not the only solution – even for mundane shape like i or m has its unique usage.

01:18 Faces created by typefaces
We see a series of human faces and figures almost solely consist of typography. Some figures entirely consist of letters and their placement or scaling (such as in the bowing ladies figure with the letter k and l), and some uses supplementary figure to help viewers imagine what the shape is about (such as in the snorkeling man with additional fish and bubbles). This section not only uses ordinary letters but borrows strange-looking characters from non-English languages. Although they might be relying too much on the complexity of the letters rather than creative placement and scaling, they add dynamic movements and variety.

Other elements
Typography is not the only design element in this video. Two elements are worth noting: music and background. The music adds enough tension to make viewers feel “something is coming along” plus provides a classical, well-mannered taste. Its contrast between the playfulness of the video highlights the typography effect even more. The background mostly consists of combination of basic colors. It adds excitement to the sometimes bland texts (they are all black) and carries the animation forward.

—————- Bonus material ————————
Introducing only the “best” does not do justice to such a rich assortment of creative videos. Here are some more that didn’t make it to the top but nevertheless are worth mentioning.

Most stunning message
This video needs no explanation. It just has to be viewed. I would have chosen this video if its power lied in visual design (unfortunately no).

Text as the storyteller
An ordinary mini-story turns into a dramatic play thanks to typography. The presense of music also has a big part. Because the visual effect is rather limited, the music leaves larger impression, making the story even more dramatic. A good reminder of how important not to rely only on visual effects.

Have we seen this before? Maybe, in the 80s by the musician whose former name was the musician whose former name was Prince (recursive). Youtube does not contain Sign of the Times video anymore. Boo.

Most Playful
Can we go one step forward and migrate lyrics into video as characters, not just as subtitles? YouTube is filled with presentations with texts disguised as a (relatively) lawsuit-free music videos. The ‘informing’ part of their design communication works well, especially the texts contain serious messages that are hard to follow (like the case below).

But that is too static. Let them play dynamically, and here is the result. Isn’t it nice to see the background color changes to blue when the song says “blue”?

Last bonus: Helvetica
This is a snippet from a full-length documentary called, er, Helvetica about the ubiquitous typeface. Overused yes, but Helvetica is still a beautifully designed font. The documentary tip-toes on the thin borderline between bordomness and edginess (for some people including myself, the same). Trivial Trivia: In Will & Grace, Jack declares his resume must be typed in Helvetica.