When I’m not writing for Fast Company or elsewhere, I make films that help organizations and companies make sense of interesting ideas. One of my frequent partners is National Public Radio, and a while ago they asked me to help them get the word out about their Android app. Their interesting idea was this: Because the app was open-source, anyone could help design and develop it—and not just hackers, but everyday listeners, too. My brief: Come up with a way to film "open-source app development" in a way that was appealing to geeks but not so technical that it scared off regular people, too.
It’s always hard to make technical subjects seem understandable, which is why animated "explainer videos" are such a hot thing these days. But there’s a big difference between merely explaining or demo-ing something, and making sense of it. How do you make an abstract, "virtual" idea like app development appeal to the senses (which, as we all learned in high school biology, is the only way to reach the brain)? Here are three tactics I used when designing and directing the video.
When something makes sense, we don’t say we "understand" it. We get it. Grasp it. It clicks. It’s no coincidence that these words all evoke physicality and stuff-ness. By devising a metaphor based on everyday objects—"making apps on Android is like doodling on a whiteboard"—the vaporous idea becomes embedded in the real world, where real life happens, where things have edges and surfaces and textures that are intuitive and authentic. Sure, I could have done the whole "phone is a whiteboard" thing in motion graphics. But that would be just layering one abstraction onto another. In contrast, objects are literally "down to earth." They’re direct; they exist in the same world that the viewer does. Tellingly, some of Google’s own best marketing for Android relies on this same tactic.
What is building an open-source app like? A lot of typing and clicking, probably. Not very interesting, because the process is invisible, inscrutable … interior. But watching a bunch of artists swirl around a table building something physical in real time with their real hands is interesting. It makes you think: What are they doing? How are they doing it? What’s it going to look like when they’re done? People like to watch other people create—or at least get the sense of some creative act unfolding. I call this "process value". Watching someone explain can be boring, but watching someone (or something!) make is not.
The previous two items in my list have been all about evoking the built-in power of the real world, but the world of ideas is fun to be in because it offers something beyond everyday reality. That’s why the little green Android mascot briefly springs to life and waves at the camera; that’s why the colored QWERTY keys suddenly push themselves onto the whiteboard of their own accord; that’s why the drawn-on "cursor" at the end of the video starts blinking like it’s on an actual smartphone screen. Surprise is magical. Delight is magical. Fascination is magical. It doesn’t take a Michael-Bay-sized budget to sprinkle this kind of pixie dust onto an explainer, and it goes a long way.
None of these tactics are new—mid-20th-century industrial films used them all the time. Maybe that’s why we still watch them.