May 31, 2012
Until this morning, I had never listened to the soundtrack of Virgin America‘s safety video outside of aircraft captivity. When the YouTube clip began to play in my office, I was aware of how strongly my brain connects that music with the specific experience of flying Virgin. It’s relaxing yet night-clubby; Muzakesque but cooler. Or, as my officemate put it, “It makes you want to break into yoga.”
Virgin America still doesn’t offer in-flight yoga classes (though in their early days, I think I recall a light instructional for in-seat poses on the interactive entertainment system), but their other amenities certainly cater to a yoga-loving young professional set. It’s the aspirational hipster’s airline, and they have the safety video to prove it.
If you’ve flown Virgin America, you’ve seen the video—it’s been running since the airline’s launch in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below. It’s a hand-illustrated, animated short starring fanciful and often non-human characters, like a matador and his bull, and a many-armed nun. Most people are both surprised and charmed by their first encounter with the video. While it’s a clear ploy to get passengers to tune in to something they’ve been tuning out for years, it’s a clever, well-executed ploy, which viewers reward with their attention.
Of all the bells and whistles Virgin America installed to distinguish their brand from its competitors, this safety shpiel is one of the most distinct, unique aspects of the flight experience—which is something of a feat, since the message that must be conveyed through the video is strictly regulated by numerous federal agencies. But Virgin America did an ace job of turning a PSA into entertainment, and other airlines have followed suit, redesigning their safety videos to be more sexy, more funny, and generally less robotic.
“You don’t get to mess with the script too much—it’s about saving people’s lives,” says Gordon P. Clark, who is both the artist and the voice behind the Virgin America video (“They threw out some big names for the voiceover, but they ended up using my voice because I’m a bargain,” he says). Clark has worked in animation design for over two decades, and while landing the gig as Virgin America’s safety communicator didn’t fundamentally change his career, he says he’s received loads of attention for it. The secondary benefit of making this captive audience focus on the safety message is that they also focus on the art itself.
Clark was hired by an agency called Anomaly, which worked with Virgin America on their branding and communications strategy from 2004-2007. “It was one of those cases where everyone that was capable in the studio came up with different ideas,” Clark recalls, “and mine was just this one based on doodles and a design that was supposed to look sort of naive and organic and not be consistent like animation normally is—the kind of inconsistent design like you’d do while you’re on the phone.”
Because the approval process for a message of this kind moves glacially slow, Clark and his animation team had time to add and experiment with details and nuance. ”We tried to interject subtle visual humor without distracting or confusing people,” he says, which meant hitting quite a few dead ends when something that seemed harmless was deemed potentially open to misinterpretation by passengers—at one point, the life-vest scene included someone in the background putting on the vest entirely wrong, but it was cut for fear someone might interpret it literally.
This level of caution extended to the characters in the video. “We used as many animals and non-humans as we could, but they said if it’s an animal that could actually be on board, like a dog, we couldn’t use it.” Hence, the cyclops-fish and the giant bull. In keeping with his desire for randomness and the feel of idle doodling, Clark enlisted two other illustrator-animators, Nick Hewitt and Mike Overbeck, to add their personal styles to the mix. The result is a cast of characters at least as quirky and varied as the real human array one sees when flying.
Clark now works at Lucasfilm as an animator for Clone Wars, the 3D CGI television series based on Star Wars, but he still calls the Virgin America video his most “high-profile job.” Indeed, both his visual personality and his voice are now pretty well baked into the DNA of an airline that is, in many ways, shaping the future of the in-flight experience—or at very least, setting the bar for creative approaches to meeting federal requirements.
May 9, 2012
In this series on design for water scarcity, we’ve been talking primarily about the American West. At the Arid Lands Institute, the southern California design lab that has appeared in most of these stories, focusing on this limited geographic region gives designers a petri dish within which to cultivate solutions that might later be applied elsewhere. “What looks like a kind of localism,” points out ALI founder-director Hadley Arnold, “is a very careful, intentional commitment to deindustrializing water systems in the developed world as a sort of twin separated at birth from how you bring potable water, sanitation and hygeine, and careful water management to the developing world.”
Of course one of the most significant differences between addressing water scarcity in the developed versus the developing world is that in the U.S., scarcity remains somewhat abstract to most people. Clean drinking water still flows from the tap. Agricultural fields still turn green and produce food. Meanwhile in India, the consequences of depleted aquifers are plainly visible.
This week on the public radio show Marketplace, host Kai Ryssdal interviewed Rajendra Singh, an Indian conservationist whose work restoring water supplies to parts of Rajasthan has earned him the nickname “The Waterman.” Singh was educated in medicine, but he discovered that applying his training in the real world would be useless if the water crisis wasn’t addressed first. He spoke of traveling to Rajasthan and encountering severe loss of groundwater, the drying up of wells, and the decline of wildlife and agriculture as a result. He undertook the reestablishment of a traditional method of rainwater harvesting, digging a collection pond that would hold rainwater that fell during the monsoon.
The outcome of his work has been dramatic. Where rainwater can be collected and retained, farms have become productive, animals have come back, and very imporantly, aquifers have been recharged, and groundwater and river levels have risen. Once the first collection pond’s value was proven, others were dug. “Community-driven, decentralized water management is the solution for my country,” Singh said in the interview. It’s also the solution most commonly proposed by designers and conservationists in the U.S. From Singh’s perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean high-tech strategies—traditional rainwater harvesting techniques like the one he implemented have been around for centuries.
Singh’s perspective is echoed in a TED talk on the subject of water in India, delivered by Anupam Mishra, also a conservationist with a long history of water management advocacy. In his presentation, Mishra pointed out that 800 years ago, in what was at the time one of the country’s most dense and important hubs, each house in a village collected its own rainwater. But large-scale, government-sponsored hydroengineering projects changed that, attempting to import piped water across vast distances.
As has been argued about the American West, these megaprojects set citizens up for dependence on infrastructure that might not always deliver. In India, the wide, open canals designed to bring water from the Himalayas were quickly filled with water hyacinths or overtaken by sand and wildlife, eliminating the flow of water to its intended destination.
Mishra’s presentation emphasized that some of the most effective models of water management in India are also some of the oldest and most beautiful. He showed how architecture and sculpture were integrated into the water infrastructure, melding public art with utility, as has also been seen in Europe. The stepwells (or stepped ponds) of western India are monumental examples of precise, pre-industrial design, with symmetrical, geometric patterns of stairs leading down into deep water storage vaults. When the water supplies were abundant, the stairs would be submerged, and as the water went back down, the steps became visible and usable. Likewise, stone animal heads were installed at various heights inside rainwater collection tanks to indicate the volume of water inside and the length of time that stock would last.
Today, young Indian engineers are designing mass-produced, modular versions of these tanks made with precast concrete and other industrial materials. A company called Furaat popped up in 2008 with a design that echoed the old stepwells. Their concept promised to recharge groundwater as well as purify collected rainwater for safe drinking. From their presentation materials it’s clear that the engineers saw a business opportunity in addressing the water crisis, but it’s unclear whether the entity has flourished.
Anupam Mishra’s attitude seems to be that commercializing the approach to water management doesn’t lead to success, as it overlooks what’s appropriate to individual locations and climates. “We had full-page advertisements some thirty or twenty-five years ago when these canals came,” Mishra recounts, “They said, ‘Throw away your traditional systems, these new cement tanks will supply you piped water.’ It’s the dream, and it became a dream also, because soon the water was not able to reach these areas, and people started renovating their own structures.”
This doesn’t mean that today’s designers and engineers have no role in improving Indian citizens’ access to water. Many of the examples from the Indian desert still begin with rainwater harvesting, but implement more modern technology between collection and consumption. A partnership between global design firm IDEO and social entrepreneurship engine Acumen Fund introduced collection tanks in Rajasthan that also provided filtration, putting clean drinking water within a short distance of all members of a village. The tanks can’t hold an aesthetic candle to the stepwells of the 11th century, but they represent a useful bridge between traditional practices and modern capabilities.
If you have 18 minutes to spare, Anupam Mishra’s TED talk is worth watching (also embedded above). The next and final post in this series will return to the U.S. to look at some of this country’s oldest water management and land use practices, and how design could improve conditions on the reservation.