In 1959, and for at least three decades afterward, the career path for a graphic designer in the television industry was through traditional print and identity design. Live onscreen graphics was an area over which designers working in television had little control. Today, a graphic designer at a station or network can do it all: print, Web as well as any graphics broadcast on TV. This change was technology-driven with the rise of computers in both television and graphic design. The audience’s tolerance and desire for a broader visual language and greater amounts of onscreen information has changed as well; thus the changing technology was programming-driven, with the rise of news and sports and the popularity of the Web.
Up until recent decades, graphic designers who had a lasting impact in television were most often creative directors in charge of print promotions and marketing, like William Golden and Lou Dorfsman at CBS in the ’50s and ’60s. By 1959, when Golden died prematurely of a heart attack, he and Dorfsman, with essential support from corporate higher-ups, had established a sophisticated, timeless house style for CBS. As Roger Remington and Barbara Hodik wrote in Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, “Golden saw his work as a true reflection of what CBS was-and he strove to keep CBS true to its image throughout his career. ‘A trademark does not in itself constitute a corporate image,’ he wrote in 1959. ‘It is the total impression a company makes in public through its products, its policies, its actions and its advertising efforts.’”
Despite CBS’s success with a design visionary in a position of power, graphic designers remained rare in TV. Prior to 1973, when Chris Pullman was brought in as vice president of WGBH in charge of visual branding and communication, the art department, like set design and lighting, was under the engineering department. Thanks to a reorganization proposal done by Chermayeff & Geismar (the same studio that had just created the double-shadow WGBH, 2, 44 and 89.7 logos for the station that are still used today), the newly rechristened design department was pulled from engineering and the new VP reported directly to the CEO, much like Golden's relationship with CBS. Pullman brought together a team of gifted people who created award-winning designs for projects as varied as national PBS programming like Nova and Masterpiece Theater and local promotions like the cute 2-Mobile that was driven around the streets of metro Boston.
WGBH is a unique design environment in television. The design group handles not only promotional materials for its role as a local Boston PBS affiliate, but also functions as an independent design studio, taking on outside projects. The major reason the design group is so robust is that WGBH produces 30 percent of the PBS national programming and 40 percent of the pbs.org content. That translates into a lot of work done by designers. In addition to print collateral, in-house designers create graphics and titles used in programming (e.g., animated maps for American Experience, the famous Masterpiece Theatre openings), promos for upcoming shows, Web sites that complement and enhance programs (e.g., animations explaining complex ideas for the Nova Web site), and continuing work in the typography of closed captioning (first developed in the U.S. in 1977 for The French Chef).
Pullman, recently retired, recalls how odd it seemed for a young designer teaching at Yale to accept a job in TV. “Nobody went to work for television. When I got the offer to go to ’GBH, everyone around me said, ‘Are you nuts?,’ unless you go into advertising, that would be the worst thing you could do with your education. A graphic designer in television was an oxymoron. This changed in the ’70s when people started to, like me, have the responsibility for the soup-to-nuts communication graphics of a TV station or a network. Or they went into the high-density, fast turnaround and highly graphic news operation.”
Before character generators became commonplace in the late ’70s, type got onto the video signal in fairly basic ways, for example, cards foil-stamped with brass letters affixed to an easel or flip stand, letters typewritten on scrolling paper rolls, or graphics on slides superimposed onto a live video feed from a separate camera. In the late ’50s and through the ’60s, supers were predominantly white, bold, sans serif letters with black drop shadows. The mechanics of the style did not change greatly in the next decade. “Having been a coordinating producer in TV transmission studios for five years in the late '60s and early ’70s, I can tell you that graphics were frankly a nuisance,” says Robert Fripp, an author, communications consultant and producer who’s worked in television for many decades in Canada. (He’s also the son-in-law of Cipe Pineles, Golden’s widow.) “Too often one had to lock off a studio camera (and get a stagehand with easel and cards) to inject materials as obvious as lower frame supers. When graphics were used they were either preassembled or, more usually, rear-screen projections used in studio shows for which the cameras had to be pre-positioned to read the graphics between the on-air people.”
By the late ’60s, TV manufacturing improved and color sets were becoming popular, but graphics still had to work on older TV sets. Fripp recalls, “In the early days of color and videotape, the rotating heads on two-inch videotape machines had to penetrate the oxide more deeply to read the 'red' signal, which tended to bleed across receivers’ screens. So large areas of red were discouraged for a number of technical reasons, the ultimate reason being that a large area of red looked awful. It tended to smear the image directly to the right of it.” In the mid-1980s, Joel Markus made a splash as art director at Boston’s UHF channel WSBK TV38, an extremely hip station known as much for the unexpectedly addictive Ask the Manager as for the series of outstanding, eye-catching vintage poster-like print ads Markus created for “The Movie Loft.” With an MFA in design, Markus came to television from a print background. He too remembers the frustrating limitations of broadcast graphics production twenty years ago. “In addition to red, we had to be concerned with white too. We would sometimes use a 90 percent because 100 percent would glow.”
Unlike today’s flat screens, older TVs had a restricted viewing area. Cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs were encased in housing that obscured varying amounts of the screen edges depending upon the manufacturer, especially the furniture-style cabinets of the ’50s and ’60s sets. Also, CRTs lost focus and definition toward the edges, with the oldest sets losing as much as twenty percent of the screen area. Type safe grids were used and even with those, designers had to be conservative, since the exact placement differed from set to set. Says Markus, “I remember on one occasion, I was in the control room reviewing a graphic on several monitors at the same time. Each one was slightly different. I asked the switcher which was the most accurate. His comment was, ‘Pick one—they will still look different in someone's home.’” As Pullman notes, “Television’s low resolution was not a very hospitable place for typography. Instead, you got big, dumb graphics in the middle.” Today, there’s also the concern of “4:3 safety;” viewers who haven’t gone widescreen are still losing some amount of graphics at the sides, even on the non-HD, standard definition channels.
TV design has always been a collaborative process, even more so in the days before the personal computer. Because of union rules, designers worked with a team of technicians, some of whom were not the most visually sensitive. Pre-digital editing had the potential for even more visual compromises. “In linear editing you had to build your elements in layers, each layer using a tape machine,” says Markus. “So, for example, if you had a design with a mere three layers, you would use three tape machines, one for each different graphic element. Then you would run those machines at the same time and record your composite onto a fourth machine. Depending upon how many layers were in your design, you would either need a lot of tape machines or you would have to use your composite as a layer—hus diffusing your image. Obviously now you basically can design with numerous layers, all first generation.”
Pullman points out that the rise of television news in the early to mid-1970s resulted in designers getting more involved in onscreen graphics by necessity. “News graphics became the most prolific use of people we would call designers for the first time in the television industry. Up until that point, it was the rare duck who was working in television who had been trained as a graphic designer. But when networks started the nightly news, they stuck people in the news graphics departments of the news groups. I would say that was like being strapped to the galley slave plank. If ever there was a disposable, unnoticed completely no-time-to-do-anything-right environment, it was news graphics.”
Increased news programming brought innovations in technology. “The ’60s were really the first time that most Americans got their information about the world through television rather than through newspapers. In the ’70s, you saw the rise of TV news as the main money maker. And you also saw the weird bedfellows of Hollywood and the Defense Department, both were the main sponsors of the motion graphics business: initially big, mainframe, 3-D motion graphics devices that were first used to produce special effects in films, and then the stuff you never saw—fly-over simulations and battlefield simulations—that the Defense Department wanted. It really wasn't until the end of the ’80s that this technology trickled down to the point where most network affiliates could afford some of it.”
Station breaks, promos or end credits were made in-house (or contracted out) using film or CEL animation, but that cost money and, more importantly, took time. In television, especially live TV, time was even more critical than in any other field of graphic design. And news and sports graphics especially needed a more immediate technology. The first real-time character generator system was introduced by Chyron, Inc. in 1972. “Chyron” has since become a genericized trademark referring to the superimposed text mostly residing in the “lower third” of the screen. The earliest computer-driven graphics devices had a limited number of fonts, effects and dissolves, like barn door wipes, rolls and squiggles. A scan of old station IDs from the 1980s preserved on YouTube reveal gaudy Star Wars-like perspective effects, flying toward you and away, with multiple shadows and glinting starbursts. In 1990, CBS asked Chyron for new features for their national election coverage. Due to customer demands and advancements in personal computers, by the mid-1990s, computer graphics workstations like by Chyron, Quantel Paintbox or the Aurora Paint System offered a wider range of tools and the resulting designs began to approach the intricacy of print and film animation. This new technology also resulted in a change in union work rules: Designers now had hands-on access.
With the advent of cable, it wasn’t unusual for a local station to be assigned a different channel number than their broadcast channel and thus the onscreen application of the network or station logo—called a “bug”—came into being. The bug would appear every fifteen minutes and stay on screen for about five seconds, reminding viewers what station they were watching. Bugs are still used today; in fact, they have grown in importance and stay on screen throughout all programming; often animated and sometimes glaringly obtrusive, they are also used to promote the next show while the current one is still airing, causing them to be dubbed “snipes.” In the case of newscasts, bugs let viewers know the time, temperature and Web address of the station or network. Now that clips can be rebroadcast on other networks or end up on YouTube, branding video is critical.
More and more, today’s screens with crawls, bugs and multiple information panels (that may or may not go with the live-action story and may or may not be relegated just to the lower third) resemble content-rich Web pages and reflect the ability of viewers, especially younger ones, to absorb multiple info-streams simultaneously. Markus, who today runs his own production studio, M, Inc. in Salem, Massachusetts, where he creates motion graphics for television clients like ESPN and Discovery Channel, theorizes that TV watchers first got in the habit of simultaneous viewing when the remote control became commonplace. Channel flipping loses viewers and stations would rather load the screen in order to keep them. Plus, the visual vernacular of the Web, video games and smartphones is not only a language in which most viewers are fluent, it’s one that’s expected, particularly as more programming is repeated, simulcast or originates on both Web and mobile phones. Since Web traffic factors into ad revenue just like program ratings, the broadcast graphics need to drive viewers to the Web site and the Web site drives them back to the broadcast. In fact, Web language is so pervasive, the NBC peacock logo followed by “.com”—a rebus URL—seems natural.
The merging of the Internet with television coincides with the merging of roles for a designer working in TV. In 2001, WSBK-TV38 became part of CBS Corporation and exists as an independent station along with its sister station, the local CBS affiliate WBZ. Arne Jensen is the design director for both and under Jensen, TV38, which had such a distinctive, well-crafted look in the ’80s, again has a clean, forward-thinking, non-derivative style as part of the overall WBZ design. Within certain corporate parameters, CBS allows affiliates to have their own design and in a recent redesign that sought to reposition the briefly renamed “CBS4” back to its original call sign of WBZ, Jensen, whose background is in computer graphics and fine art, created a flat, geometric motif based on square elements. The design scheme stands apart from the “nutty 3-D,” images-flying-at-you, oversized-crawls and bugs in use elsewhere. Text elements are much smaller than on competing stations, a conscious decision not to “yell” with the graphics, just complement the video.
Although he works with a team of designers, Jensen notes that it’s possible to be self-contained as a designer in a TV station—doing it all. The biggest change since the 1990s is that today’s graphics systems are more Macintosh-based. WBZ uses an integrated digital 3-D graphics system by the Norwegian-based company Vizrt. Designs created within the Vizrt don’t require the time to be digitally rendered (as an After Effects movie would); they can be modified and updated on-the-fly. The system provides seamless integration with designs created on the Mac, with the result that it’s difficult for a viewer to discern which elements were created with which. His department also oversees both Web and print design, although, in WBZ’s case, print design—the area of greatest impact in television 50 and even 20 years ago—is practically nonexistent.
TV graphics is no longer the bastard child of the design industry. It’s quite possible that it might be one of the most exciting and influential design careers out there. Markus provides these tips for anyone interested in designing TV or motion graphics: 1. Be a creative thinker and develop strong design skills; 2. Have a good working knowledge and experience of the software programs that are currently available. 3. Work well with others. Team projects in the broadcast arena happen more often than not; and 4. Design with the technology, don’t let the technology be the design. ca