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By: Holland Wilde

Re: "Big Risk Set Design": Seminar Session Oral Text

Broadcast Designers Association International Conference

Las Vegas, 1990

Well…, I had to chuckle when I was asked to speak on “Big Risk Design.”  Since over the years I've made a conscience effort to never do any.  You see, to me, big risk design is bad design.  I learned a long time ago, in theatre, how to get noticed in the press… just use a turn-table, throw in a few special effects like a mirror-ball, fog machine and flash pot… and presto!, I'm mentioned at the beginning of the arts review instead of the last paragraph.  But, the important question for me always remained: “Is the bad design worth this risk?”  Conversely, at the other extreme, one could probably design one generic, unit-set (example: Guthrie, MN and Stratford, ONT)  and perform on it every single play ever written - but would that alone be good design?  Would that do ‘justice’ to the subject matter?  Well the very same can be said for television today.

How is it you can travel from coast-to-coast and see the very same news studio - time, after time, after time?  That big bulky anchor desk, the phony newsrooms, chromakey, monitor walls, graphics-boxes, photomurals of the city skylines, bad weather maps..., all of that thin metallic gold striping around the edges of everything.  The "Eyewitness... ActionNewsCenter" stuff.  It really blows my mind.   Even all the music sounds the same.  Where did all of this come from?  Who decided?  Is this the best we can do?

If the viewers aren't turning off to it by now...we broadcast designers certainly should be.  Please, don't misunderstand me here - I believe television is, by far, the best ‘mirror’ our nation has ever had, albeit an imperfect one, and probably nothing a designer could ever do would be able to alter its steady and unpredictable evolution.  But, as the printed word recedes into history and the entire populace gets plugged into the optic fiber, we designers will be the ones who carry the torch of the new, visual communication.

And so, if you accept the premise that television has a responsibility to reflect the values of the viewers it serves, then new communication links to those values must be opened.  As our freedoms as citizens are slowly eroded by governmental, religious, social and marketing restraints, so too are the available "visual language" choices that are necessary to address the void.  Television is at it's very best when left to it's unbridled (but regulated) self.  The bigger the infusion of production values, the more the viewers see it as "the big lie"... merely pre-packaged entertainment marketed for mass consumption.  Seattle is no more like Miami than Boston is like L.A., but our newscasts all look and sound the same.  As designers, surely we can easily distinguish between various regional flavors.  And of course, there will always be polls, focus groups and demographic data to give us additional insights into the viewer profile.

So why then are most news sets still of that same generic "Airport\Shopping Mall" style of design.  Michael Deaver and Rodger Ailes taught us, first hand, about the power of images.  They boiled the entire 1988 presidential contest down to furloughs and flags (and they made darn sure those flag colors (salmon, eggshell and azure) were video correct.  They took no big risks with their set designs.  It's an important lesson about the preference of the ‘pleasure principle’ over the empowerment of knowledge in today's world.

But, regardless of where you stand on the Symbols vs. Reality or the Entertainment vs. Information argument, you just can't deny that we designers must still do more to elevate the level of debate.  The question isn't about whether the future of news design will be to look more like Roseanne Barr's living room or, NASA's - Houston Control.  Instead, it will be about how we uphold the integrity of our art form.  And, how we lead the viewers into what could possibly become the new "Decade of Design".  And that's certainly worth the BIG RISK.