Reuse and invisible familiarity in design

Some great backstories about things you see or hear everyday. Content used so much it becomes public domain, or more, part of the cultural landscape. Recognisable sometimes only subconsciously, but as a layer that stimulates familiarity, and builds on associations we have with certain genres, environments, emotions or experiences. I wonder if the associations we have with those things, the subconscious emotional connection to a film, or a piece of music, are only perpetuated by the familiarity, having lost original meaning. Or maybe simply reinforcing attachment to a feeling that isn’t really there.

Or maybe they just feel right. These are early memes.

(I’m not going to talk about IP and licensing in this post, but the first video covers it very well)

The “Amen Break”

A drum loop sampled and cut up so much that it almost defines how we physically connect to music.. saying “this is how your body moves”. Hard not to tap your fingers to, you’ll start hearing this in music you own, and realise it’s one of the things that makes that piece what it is.

The “Willhelm Scream”

Somebody get stabbed, or fall off a cliff? Shady figure behind a curtain? This is how you’re supposed to scream. As the story goes, this particular sample is now an in joke, or calling card, of sound engineers in the know. We probably don’t notice it, but they get to nod knowingly at each other, while producers utter “that’s it, that’s the sound I want, good work!”. And it is the sound they want. It conveys exactly what they need it to, because it’s familiar. We, as viewers, know exactly what it means and how we’re supposed to feel. It’s like mist over a lake, or a ripple in a glass of water.

“The Recurring Prop Newspaper”

Then there’s the pure joke. Which probably started as laziness. Or reused because it was augmented somehow to be useful on set, to hold something like an actors lines maybe?

But by now I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a PDF floating around producers email lists (Is there a resource of this stuff? There should be). So does this have an emotional side-effect. Probably not. But you can be sure the content of the newspaper has nothing to do with the plot of whatever it is you’re watching. You’d think that might guarantee it not to be misleading or distracting, but the opposite might be true. How can something interesting to a character in a scene not be interesting to the viewer, or relevant to the story? Maybe we read too much into this..

(Borrowed from Slashfilm)


So is all this in the aid of familiarity, a joke, laziness.. or do they just work? The Amen Break started as convenient, and awesome. Now it’s basically a default framework, on which the layers of a track are built.

When you apply this to interface design it’s easy to see similar reasoning about consistency and familiarity. We often strive to create “invisible design”, design we just know how to use. It’s not intrusive, it’s clear and well known, and doesn’t require instructions. Like a close box, or an “OK” button. We think about libraries and best practice, but we sometimes forget emotion. People like to be at ease, when they already know how something works, the barriers drop.

Sometimes these things change. Why is the save icon in your word processor a small image of a floppy disk? If you were born in the ’90’s it’s likely you have no idea what that is, what is that supposed to suggest is the function of that button? The answer? Well it’s increasingly becoming to change the paradigm of “saving”. The familiar pattern on the web has started to become automatic, or background saving, having an inherent revision history. Collaboration on a document is also having an effect. No-longer is there a save-and-hand-over, stop > send > wait > receive > edit > repeat, process.

So this has become invisible, just like the Amen Break. We see it, it is fundamental to the experience, but we get it straight away so see past it. Clever stuff. But you can’t purposely create these memes. Memes create themselves. A collective acceptance, even viral. We’re rats in a maze we’re designing.

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