Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Rhythm of Life

According to the IPA, the content of what we say is only of 7% importance to anyone listening. How we are saying it is much more important; the tone of our voices (38%) and our body language (55%). The rhythms and modulations of our bodies and voices are, it would seem, far more important than the actual words we speak.

Which is no surprise - we are programmed to perceive meaning through movement and rhythms. It is an essential part of how we pick up meaning from each other. In a classic experiment Johanson (1973, 1976) created displays of human movement by attaching lights to the major joints of human models. The models were filmed so that only the points of light were visible to observers. What he found was that although observers rarely percieved a human form when it was static, when the displays moved observers were rapidly able to detect different human movements. Since then however, other researchers have identified a whole range of actions such as emotion and intention that are readily recognisable from point-light displays of moving people. Even basic rhythm and movement it would seem, belies human traits and emotions. In Blink, Gladwell gives us the example of the World War II Morse code operators; during the war, allied forces intercepted a wealth of encrypted radio messages from the Germans. Although they were never able to break the codes, they learned to identify the individual style of each radio operator from the unique pauses and rhythms each used. Each individual's style was so distinctive that the interceptors could not only recognise which German radio operator was sending the message just from a few seconds of code but more importantly could also understand the tone of what was being said. They were able to perceive different emotions - whether a particular operator was his relaxed, chatty self or rushed, formal and under pressure simply by listening to the rhythms in the messages. In The Tipping Point Gladwell also draws our attention to William Condon’s study of cultural micro-rhythms:

"He realised that in addition to talking and listening, the three people around the table were also engaging in what he termed "interactional synchrony." Their conversation had a rhythmic physical dimension...the speaker was, in effect, dancing to his or her own speech."

Communication is clearly not just about words and what is said. There is a subtle, yet rich rhythmical dimension that surrounds it. And it's not just in speech that this occurs. Experts can tell a lot about the psychology of someone just from observing the nuances of their handwriting and the movements that formed the words. Graphology is the study of human handwriting in relation to psychology: “Graphologists proceed to evaluate the pattern, form, movement, rhythm, quality, and consistency of the graphic stroke in terms of psychological interpretations.” Handwriting captures human rhythms and emotional states in a way that traditional print cannot. Indeed, it could be argued that the static printed word is highly limiting when it comes to trying to capture that all important 93% of what we are trying to communicate. The printed word cannot be easily imbued with rhythm or movement unless perhaps in the hands of an artful poet. It does not naturally flow with rhythm as handwriting does. The art of typography has off course done much to try to re-embed some of this lost layer of communication into the printed word. And it is no surprise that typography and form have become such essential parts of advertising. David Ogilvy infamously remarked:

"Once upon a time I was riding on the top of a First Avenue bus, when I heard a mythical housewife say to another, "Molly, my dear, I would have bought that new brand of toilet soap if only they hadn't set the body copy in ten point Garamond." Don't you believe it. What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.”

This is perhaps a little naive: the form, the typography used can imbue a word with a whole set of connotations and create a layer of communication above and beyond what the words themselves are struggling to tell us. Indeed it could be argued that in a static, printed world this was how we tried to sneak back some of that missing 93%, to communicate tone and body language through words.

But in today's digital world, words no longer have to be static. With the advent of the appropriately named Adobe ActionScript came animated gifs and animated text. And as a result rhythm and modulation could, for the first time since pulsating neon signs, be imparted into the previously static written word. Nowadays, words fly, jump and move all over sites, banners and on TV. No one has capitalised more on this notion of animated text than Audi with its Vorsprung durch Technik – it’s a good bet that not many people could tell you the literal German translation of that phrase or offer a reasoned, articulate definition of the term and its meaning. But the spinning DNA helix on it’s website and the words flying through the TV ad somehow reveal more about the essence of the brand than any finely tuned paragraph of copy could. Like those Allied operators of World War II we have little idea as to the content of what is really being said. But the rhythms and movements of those words tell us everything we need to know.

One of the fastest growing advertising mediums on the web in recent years has been rich media – essentially something that moves. Which is no surprise - it is clear that rhythm and movement are a fundamental part of human communication. We are naturally programmed to use them to 'read' people. No co-incidence then that there are numerous sites offering animated text for customising Myspace pages; on a site where people want to capture as much about themselves as they can, (albiet crude) animation and moving text are a fundamental part. Somehow animated text, people seem to believe, appears to help capture some vital essence. The words move, jump and pulsate with life all over Myspace profiles. Mercedes' A to S site has received huge plaudits from the likes of the IAB for the fact that the “advertising and website mirror Mercedes' approach to vehicle production with a host of interactive elements that reflect the real world experience.” All created through an animated alphabet and interactive, moving text. No close ups of the car and it’s engineering, just an animated textual adventure as words glide, appear, move and reform on the page in front of us.

To 'animate’ quite literally means to breathe life into and the beauty of digital text is that it is just beginning to allow us to start exploring that 93% of communication that is inevitably lost when words are written. Slowly, we are beginning to get used to a new kind of text: one that moves, and pulsates - it is no longer just on TV commercials where words move. It is commonplace all over the web now.

In Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum's character declares that "if there's one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers.” As Gladwell's Morse code example showed, build a device that strips communication of meaning and locks it into a mechanic code and that 93% will still find a way to come out. The rhythms of life will crash through. And so it is with the web. As technology evolves, slowly but surely the static printed word of the literate society is becoming more fluid and animated. Digital techniques are increasingly allowing us to experiment in new ways and to try to capture some small amount of that 93% of communication that is traditionally lost when we move from an oral to a literate medium.

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