Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The thumbnail rule

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Book covers by Chip Kidd

In his charming book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, the legendary cover designer Chip Kidd writes: “Here is a very cool, simple design trick: If a piece of visual information looks interesting when it is small, then it will look even more so when you make it big.” More recently, in an interview with the Longform podcast, he expanded on the origins of this insight:

Even when I was in school, pre-computer, there’s a reason that thumbnail sketches are called thumbnail sketches—because they are small, and they are distillations, and they are supposed to be a simplification of the idea that you have. So that hasn’t changed. Most graphic designers that I know sketch stuff out small…I’ve been mindful of how this stuff looks like as a postage stamp pretty much from the beginning, and part of that was also because—probably before you were born—there was something called the Book of the Month Club. And the Book of the Month Club used to buy a group ad on the back page of The New York Times Book Review every week, where they showed as many of these goddamned books—all, you know, current bestsellers—at postage stamp or sub-postage stamp size. And so it wasn’t like I was ever told to design with that in mind, but it was always interesting to see how one of my designs would be reconfigured for this ad. And sometimes it would change it and take away some of the detail, or sometimes they would keep it.

As a general design rule—if it looks good small, it’ll look good big—this isn’t so different from the principle of writing music for crappy speakers, as memorably expressed by the record producer Bill Moriarty:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

A reduction in scale, in other words, is a kind of editing strategy: by forcing you to remove everything that doesn’t read at a smaller size or at a lower resolution, you’re compelled to simplify and streamline. It also allows you to see patterns, good or bad, that might not be obvious otherwise. This is why I often do what I call a visual edit on my work, reducing each page to a size that is almost too small to read comfortably as I scroll quickly through the manuscript: sections or paragraphs that seem out of tune with the overall rhythms of the story jump out, and I’ll often see things to cut that wouldn’t have struck me if I’d been reading as I normally would.

Ad for the Book of the Month Club

Navigating changes in scale is central to what artists do, particularly in fields in which the intended user could potentially experience the work in any number of ways. It’s why smart theater directors try to watch a play from every section of a theater, and why film editors need to be particularly sensitive to the different formats in which a movie might be viewed. As Charles Koppelman describes the editor Walter Murch’s process in Behind the Seen:

The “little people” are another one of Walter’s handmade edit room tools. These are paper cutouts in the shapes of a man and a woman that he affixes to each side of his large screening monitor. They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale.

As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in.

And such considerations are far from theoretical. A director like Tom Hooper, for example, who got his start in television, seems to think exclusively in terms of composition for a video monitor, which can make movies like The King’s Speech unnecessarily alienating when seen in theaters. I actually enjoyed his version of Les Misérables, but that’s probably because I saw it at home: on the big screen, all those characters bellowing their songs directly into the camera lens might have been unbearable. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Quentin Tarantino, a much more thoughtful director, will be releasing two different versions of The Hateful Eight, one optimized for massive screens, the other for multiplexes and home viewing. As Variety writes: “The sequences in question play in ‘big, long, cool, unblinking takes’ in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. ‘It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.'”) And we’ve all had to endure movies in which the sound seems to have been mixed with total indifference to how it would sound on a home theater system, with all the dialogue drowned out by muddy ambient noise. We can’t always control how viewers or audiences will experience what we do, but we can at least keep the lower end in mind, which has a way of clarifying how the work will play under the best possible circumstances. An artist has to think about scale all the time, and when in doubt, it’s often best to approach the work as if it’s a thumbnail of itself, while still retaining all the information of the whole. At least as a rule of thumb.

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