Who can deny buying a book or renting a movie based on the cover art? This art is one of the main elements used to discern one product from another. We see great designers working to make sure we have a sexy package to indicate the hopefully great content within. When we go online, that design turns into what is commonly called a thumbnail. The shapes and meanings that help us understand and choose the content within. I think its time to rethink one of the most popular media types for the digital age. After all, it’s a new media, and it needs new standards. But before we address the problem, here’s a quick primer on what is working well.
A vertical rectangle pretty much sums up a book. While slight variations in sizes show off different types of content. The text and images are normally well honed for maximum impact to display compelling reasons to invest in the words within. Books have have this format covered (pun intended) and designers of book covers have little need to translate their design to work well online.
Thick cardboard record covers protected their fragile vinyl circular contents. Because of easy stackablity, and the symmetry of their contents they became pretty much synonomous with the contents within. While some other types of media (laserdisks anyone?) shared this shape for a while, It’s pretty much taken for granted that music will be represented by a square. CD’s followed suit, and only suffered in their smaller dimensions compared with their cardboard alternatives. I think it’s ironic that LP sales continue to rise mainly for the affection for the large artwork, although spinning records has a certain charm as well.
This is an up-and-coming standard, but when clickable people are needed, you have to accomplish a couple of things. One, make it look a bit like something representational, and secondly, differentiate the person themselves from the background. I think the circle does this quite well. For one, since faces are generally roundish, it seems to fit nicely. Also, squares have some inner connotations with space and pictorial planes, the circle removes a lot of that connotation and makes the person themselves appear as the main focus.
As services like YouTube came into popularity, there became a sticky problem of how to represent video. The content itself has a pretty recognizable shape. Known as 4×3, the aspect ratio of TV. HDTV and later digital video settled on the aspect of 16×9, also known as ‘letterbox’. Video tends to use a ‘keyframe’ to represent one frame of content, and often uses overlays or extra text to get more information across. It’s pretty unusual for people to create a title slide or any other promotional stills to serve as a thumbnail, YouTube actually prohibits people from deliberately choosing a still.
The problem – Movies and TV
This is where the problem arises. Despite the amazing popularity of video on the internet, the thumbnail and design is stuck in quite a historically awkward spot. Since the media was the message, television was basically promoted on television, Movies preview other movies. Movie posters seemed to point a way to package the content in the newly minted VCR format, probably because they were both roughly the same size – 3×4 or the same format we used for books. However, people were unlikely to confuse a movie poster with a novel, so when the VHS boxes aped the shape and size of a paperback, it was probably considered endearing. Yet, this shape was based on the media used, the magnetic tape. When DVD’s came into play, the store shelves probably pointed the way to recreate the shape of the VHS tape in order to not have to retrofit in a changing market. Well, then you’re stuck with it. With the disappearance of video rental stores, let’s retire this format in favor of something more fitting.
I think that movies are the easiest to propose just using the actual representation of the movie itself. While we’re waiting, here’s just a few movies in their original aspect ratio with their title frame in view. This can be designed just as well as the box, just shift things to lie on their side and we’re good to go. I like especially how the qualities of the image, font and so forth convey much more information than the normal VCR box cover. Also I may be a bit immune to the composite illustrated approach of movie posters with all the stars in epic poses glued together in a bundle, let’s think more widescreen approaches. It gives the designer a new pallette as well (some inspiration – check out how Saul Bass put together a design for the widescreen).
The problem remains when considering Television, or Video, or whatever episodic content may be called in this day and age. Since they have co-opted the shape of cinema, it only goes to show how the contrast can still be informative. I’m working on an idea of how to represent episodes, Hulu does it pretty well, using the principles shown above, but I’d like to have more contrast between new, old, and evolving content. Post your thoughts below and I’ll update when I get an idea.