Shape: a new film to promote design

Director and animator Johnny Kelly and designer Scott Burnett have created a short film to show why design is important. The film features simple and charming graphics, and no language, so it can be understood universally.

Director and animator Johnny Kelly and designer Scott Burnett have created a short film to show why design is important. The film features simple and charming graphics, and no language, so it can be understood universally.

Shape, shown below, was commissioned by Pivot Dublin and Dublin City Council, and was originally part of the city’s bid to become world design capital 2014. While Cape Town picked up that accolade this year, the team decided to go ahead with the project anyway, in order to promote wider understanding and acceptance of design. The film is at the centre of a website,, which provides a broad overview of what it means to be a designer.

“I was approached by Ali Grehan from Dublin City Council who had seen a Chipotle animation (Back To The Start) that I had worked on a few years ago,” explains Kelly. “She liked the way animation was able to break down complex information (in that instance, farming practices) into digestible form and thought there might be a way to tell the story of design.”

Kelly brought Burnett into the project and the duo thrashed out a structure for the film. “We thought quite a bit about who the film was for, and what they might get from it,” continues Kelly. “For instance my wife is from a rural part of Ireland, and although she is now a very talented (if I may say so) interior and product designer, I think I speak for her when I say she didn’t really have an awareness of what design was when she was growing up – what it meant, that it could be a career. In a way the goal was to reach out to people like that, it would be lovely if a ten-year old watched this, and afterwards thought a bit more about the chair they were sitting in, or the pen they were using, or how hard their phone is to use.”

Grehan was insistent that the film not feature any language or narration, so that it could be accessible to anyone. “When designers talk about design we quite often put it on a pedestal, telling of importance rather than showing and letting people make up their own minds,” says Burnett. “While from the first meeting we were agreed that we had to avoid any kind of preaching at all costs, having the added constraint of not being able to use language helped us rule out trying to be persuasive. We couldn’t tell so we had to show, which funnily enough is what I always say to clients, but barely ever do myself.”

The duo looked at other recent design films, including Helvetica, Urbanized and Press Pause Play. They also found influence in films from the past, including Why Man Creates by Saul Bass, and “pretty much every educational/informational film made for IBM in the 60s and 70s”, says Burnett. In the end it was Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten that proved most useful. “Powers of Ten did offer the eventual breakthrough but conceptually rather than visually,” says Burnett. “Eventually the only thing that made sense was to zoom out and not make design the subject, but have it instead as the invisible catalyst in the story. Once we realised that then a lot of the early ideas found their way into the story which we just made nice and simple – a day in the life where the changes that are happening around us all the time are made visible.”

Burnett admits to some anxiety at releasing the project, particularly in relation to his peers in design. “Trying to make sense of your industry to people who don’t get it, you suddenly feel all your peers tutting and shaking their heads,” he says. “And all of it is very counter-intuitive to how we usually communicate professionally. Even on the website we’ve framed design by context rather than subject, so the whole thing is turned on it’s head as we usually start with what we do – I design websites, I design spoons, I design light fixtures for cars.

“So i’m still nervous about launching it into the world, but having shown it to a group of 10-16 year olds a few weeks ago, a lot less so. The general response was that they never thought about how much work goes into the things around them, and that they never thought about design like that before. One girl even said it had made her thankful for the nice things she has in her life. I couldn’t have scripted their responses better.

“The thing we realised along the journey was that we were making a tool as much as a film. A way to start and frame a conversation that can then be carried on. This led to the idea for the website and an education programme. We’re hoping that this keeps developing and also that other people find ways to use the film. To open up a conversation about what they do and why it’s worth thinking about.”

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