It’s not often that graphs and numbers take center stage in a popular film, but in the brilliant hands of graphic designer Brian Oakes, information design is not a backdrop but a main character in the recently released documentary I.O.U.S.A.
Directed by Wordplay director Patrick Creadon, the film deftly weaves archival footage and economic data to convey an extraordinary sense of urgency having to do with America’s current economic crisis. The movie also features candid interviews with some of the country’s most powerful personalities in the financial universe, among them, Warren Buffett, Alan Greenspan, Paul O’Neill, Robert Rubin and Paul Volcker. Another central character is David Walker, the former United States Comptroller General, who has spoken out loudly about the dire nature of the fiscal crisis facing America unless something drastic is done and done quickly.
With an eye toward appealing to all political segments in the country, Oakes has found an egalitarian aesthetic that gives vivid life to economic data, data that, in lesser hands, would surely have been yawn-inducing.
Brian speaks to Design Observer from his New York studio.
Title image designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008
Gong Szeto: What is your background and what is your current design practice like?
I went to Syracuse University for architecture and after a year I transferred into Communication Design. Architecture was great but I thought an education in graphic design would offer a broader alternative of options after school.
Brian Oakes: I grew up in a small New Hampshire town and was definitely “the doodler” in my class. First it was Lincoln Logs then it was Legos. When it was G.I. Joe, I was more interested in building their forts and bridges than making them fight. I took Technical Drawing in the 10th grade and was hooked. It was that class where you had to design and build a bridge out of balsa wood. My bridge looked badass but pretty much exploded when the first weight was suspended beneath it.
I had an amazing internship my Junior year with Alexander Isley in NYC. Which by the way, if you are a design student, I strongly recommend finding an internship at a design studio. It is a great way to spend a summer preparing for your last year of school and having that experience under your belt puts you a leg up.
After graduating in 1996 I spent a year in NYC doing a lot of packaging design. I then spent 3 years in Denver pretty much snowboarding and working at the studio, Design and Image. In 2000 I was ready to get out of the print design world and move into motion graphics. Back in NYC and entrenched in the tech boom, I worked at Dennis Interactive where I learned Flash. It was fantastic. I taught myself After Effects and in 2003 started an in-house video department for Dennis Publishing and basically cranked on After Effects for 2 years.
2005 rolled around and I was ready to go out on my own. A good friend of mine was directing the documentary Wordplay and asked me to design the film and create the titling and motion graphics. We took it to Sundance, it sold, and I officially started Brian Oakes Design. My studio is in New York City’s Union Square and I have been doing projects for HBO, Comedy Central, History Channel, and lots of independent filmmakers among others. Patrick Creadon, who directed Wordplay, also directed I.O.U.S.A.
Information graphic designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008
Were you interested in dynamic information design before I.O.U.S.A.?
I’ve always loved architecture and structure, which is why I think information design has always appealed to me. I can spend hours looking at exploded view drawings of objects and systems. When H5’s video Remind Me came out for Royksopp, I was like, “okay, that’s what I’m doing now.”
How has this film influenced your views about the medium of film to convey complex subject matter like the national debt?
My views about the medium of film have not changed. Hands down, film still is the biggest and most grandiose way to showcase moving images. If you take the same movie and play it on television, the internet, and in the theater, it will always seem bigger, more powerful, and more important in the theater. It’s everything from the stage, the screen, the lighting — and the audience you're sitting with — that makes the theater experience incomparable to anything else.
What were your greatest challenges in developing the designs for this film?
Good question. The greatest challenge was actually the first challenge we ran into. Demographics. Was this film going to be designed for teenagers? For twenty-somethings? Economists? Your average American? All of these demographics, plus others, were extremely important for this film to connect to. America’s debt problem is going to directly effect young America. That’s a fact. We are spending our young people’s money. And you know what, when we’re dead, they’re going to have to deal with it. So this movie had to appeal to them because it’s their problem and they need to understand what lies ahead. But we also had to make it appealing to the 50+ year-olds because they need to know what their generation is doing to the economy. Two very different demographics, two very different visual aesthetics. Not to mention all the people in between.
If there were out-takes on the info-graphics, why were they edited out?
None of the graphics I started were ever completely taken out. But probably 99% of them were changed at least once during the filmmaking process. And this wasn’t because of notes from the studio or the producers; it was just because of the amount of data involved. I have two, huge, 3-ring binders of government charts and spreadsheets. And it only reaffirms why I am not an accountant.
Information graphic designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008
What other roles does design play in the dissemination of the film's message?
When you are dealing with many graphic sequences that are popping up throughout the film, it is very important to connect all of those sequences visually. The graphics should become a character of the story. Once the overall visual vocabulary for a film is established, the information you are presenting becomes much more digestible and you’re not asking the viewer to “switch visual gears” every time a graphic comes on screen. You also get a film with higher production value and one that looks much more polished.
How closely did you work with the director developing your designs? And former United States Comptroller David Walker?
Patrick and I were in constant communication throughout the process. Because he’s in Los Angeles and I’m in New York, we turn on IM and basically keep it open all day. We did the same thing with Wordplay as well. It does help that we’re friends on a personal level but Patrick is great at letting the people on the team spread their wings and do their thing. There is always a free flow of ideas and communication but the director directs, the editor edits, the producers produce and I design. We all figure out the best way to do it, and then we’re off.
I met with Dave Walker a couple of times. Great guy, super smart, and very appreciative of the story we were all trying to tell. I was able to work with his assistant Sarah Williams who was amazing at gathering the data and organizing it quickly. We were running on all cylinders towards the end, getting the film out and if she and Josh Gordon (from the Concord Coalition) were not there helping me crunch the numbers, this movie would have had a release date of August 2009 instead of August 2008.
What were your impressions of the various people interviewed in the film? (Walker, O'Neil, Greenspan, Volcker, Buffett, etc.)
The interviews in this film are great. Listen, I’m probably not the first person to tell you that it’s not easy listening to an hour and a half of people talking about macroeconomics. But I will tell you this: the editor of this film, Doug Blush, is a master at condensing sound bites and he hit a grand slam with this one. The biggest heavy hitters of modern day economics are in this film, Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffett, Dave Walker, Paul Volcker, Ron Paul, Alice Rivlin. Paul O’Neill and Robert Rubin have their signatures on our currency.
I have a lot of favorite sound bites from the film but the one that always rattles me is from Senator Judd Gregg. He says, “The only issue that’s more severe than this would be the idea that if Islamic fundamentalists would get their hands on a nuclear weapon and use it against us. Beyond that, there’s nothing more severe. This issue represents the potential fiscal meltdown of this nation.”
I knew nothing about this topic when I started, and now I’m really proud to be able to have legitimate conversations (sometimes debates) with people about this topic. (I unfortunately did not get a chance to go to any of the interviews for I.O.U.S.A. but I got my fill with Wordplay being at the interviews for Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart.)
Information graphic designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008
Did the team run any focus groups to see if the info-graphics were understandable by a layperson?
I.O.U.S.A. was screened to a select number of small groups before the Sundance Film Festival. There were never any screenings specifically focused for just the graphics. Pretty much all the graphic sequences have VO underneath them so much of the feedback was making sure what was being said jived with the information that was being seen.
After Sundance, David Walker screened the film for select members of Congress, which was pretty exciting. That turned out to be a pretty important focus group.
Is there any special process, tips or tricks you developed to animate the many info-graphics in the film?
I had a really talented graphic designer, Ken Tanabe, come in for a month to help with the large timeline sequence of the film. The concept was to have a penny rolling along the “mountain ridge” of a chart, which designated our debt as a percentage of GDP throughout American history starting with the Declaration of Independence. Ken scripted the entire After Effects project so that elements reacted to the moving of the x, y and z position of the penny. This included the rotation of the penny, the location and position of the chart, the boxes of information that needed to follow along and the numbers that needed to increase and decrease. I rarely use scripting for my animation because frankly I’m horrible at it. The graphic sequence was about 3 minutes so what Ken did saved days of hand animation.
How were the designs of the information graphics in I.O.U.S.A. conceived? (As part of the book, or were they developed specifically for the film?)
All the graphics were specifically designed for the film. This story is so current that the movie kept changing. Every morning I’d open up the front page of The New York Times and say to myself, “Great, looks like I’ll be updating the mortgage crisis graphic again.”
The film was funded and produced by a private non-profit organization. What role do you think the U.S. government ought to be playing in producing design, such as motion info-graphics work like yours, to explain complex policy issues? How and where would you disseminate these policy motion info-graphics to effectively reach the public?
That’s a pretty interesting question. I think it would be pretty amazing if the government formed the IGB (Information Graphics Bureau). But realistically, I think they have bigger fish to fry right now. They do put out their numbers so I think it’s important for media outlets to present this information accurately. One of the things you will see in all of I.O.U.S.A.’s graphics is a source. I was against doing this in the beginning but in the end, I think it was very smart because legitimacy is crucial.
Would you be wiling to work for the government in that capacity?
As long as there is a secret underground lair and retinal scan entry points, if the government wants to form the IGB I would be happy to head up the organization.
What's next for you?
There are a couple of documentaries that are starting up in the beginning of next year, which I am talking to the directors about coming on board for. Right now I am working on a new Comedy Central show with comedian Demetri Martin called, Important Things with Demetri Martin. My wife and I are expecting a baby girl in December, so in addition to our 2 ½ year old son, Auden, what’s next for me seems quite busy.