Screening out the past

Using paper-thin screen technology, the moving image is colonising public spaces. What does this mean for the future of graphic design? asks Adrian Shaughnessy

Despite the technical and engineering miracle of the London Tube, a railway system that enables vast numbers of people to move about under the city, waiting for trains on a Tube platform tends to be a soul-rotting activity. London Underground doesn’t have much truck with the notion of making Tube platforms into pleasant user-experiences.

The other day I was standing on a sparsely populated platform with a dozen or so people waiting for a train. We were a miserable bunch. No one spoke or moved. But there was something strange about this group of commuters. There was a sense of zombie-like absorption that I hadn’t noticed before. Something was monopolising the attention of every individual on the platform. I wondered what could be so engaging.

It turned out that everyone was staring at the same billboard on the other side of the track. But it wasn’t the usual 16-sheet poster advertising holidays or car insurance. In fact, it was a giant video screen showing a loop of TV commercials.

The image quality was good. Not only that, but the screen appeared to be paper-thin, and it was impossible to see where the image was coming from. It was a sort of magic, and it was captivating everyone.

Turns out that we were watching the latest in Cross-Track Projection, which, according to the PR puff, is ‘a pioneering new form of track-side advertising which helps build brand stature and consumer engagement’. What’s more, ‘With an average dwell-time of 3.2 minutes on platform areas, XTP offers great potential for consumer engagement through a unique creative canvas.’

If you ignore the rather off-putting Orwellian concept of ‘dwell-time’, and the fact that these screens will be used to sell us dismal products that we could all happily live without, there’s no doubt that giant video screens on the Underground offer exciting possibilities. How wonderful if whole movies could be shown, or short films by new directors.

The simple fact is that any screen showing moving images is almost irresistible. It’s why TV and cinema are the great modern art forms. It’s why the Internet is full of film clips and animation. It’s why people sit on trains watching movies on iTouches and laptops. It’s why black taxis have screens showing ads. (As an aside, I’ve always thought an in-taxi channel presented by taxi drivers themselves would be a global entertainment smash). And it’s why vast tracts of public space are being colonised by LED screens pumping out a never-ending stream of commercial images. Screens are the new muzak: they are unavoidable.

In many ways this trend is unwelcome. Do we really want flickering screens on every surface we encounter? Maybe not, especially if they are being used to foist commercial messages on to a defenceless public. But perhaps we have reached a point where the video screen is as ubiquitous as paper. For graphic designers it’s a pivotal movement. In our brave new digital world we expect commercial messages to come in vivid electronic colour – and to move.

There aren’t many graduates emerging from design courses who don’t know how to make animation. But increasingly it will be the norm. The notion of still images and static messages will be like thatched cottages and horse-drawn carriages. A relic of a slower past and a different age.

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