Scarier than Halloween

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

The pumpkins and goblins have gone and all that’s left of Halloween is the 2 lbs you gained back from snacking on the receptionist’s candy.  Today’s post about the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. No, it isn’t the umpteenth incarnation of Chucky.  It’s far worse, it’s about our national debt and once you’ve seen it, you’ll agree that few things are more frightening than that!

Irrespective of who you voted for, our new president and every member of Congress will have to face this issue, whether they like it or not.  Yes, I know.  This doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with exciting communication design, but don’t hit the snooze button just yet!

This remarkable, non-partisan documentary is called I.O.U.S.A and has the best info graphics I’ve ever seen on this subject.  Good news for those of you who missed it when it first came out in August, its second release in theatres starts Oct 31, just in time to scare you spitless.

Being forced to watch two hours of facts and figures on our national deficit sounds like the sort of inhuman torture an IRS operative might use to extract a confession from you, admitting you fudged on your travel expenses…

But far from being a rigor-mortis-inducing-snore-fest, surprisingly, this movie delivers heaps of compelling information in an emotionally engaging way.   In fact, the best part of the movie is not the live-action segments but the outstanding motion graphics, by designer Brian Oakes, explaining the facts and figures.

Let’s take a look at what makes this movie a case-study in outstanding info graphics.

Infographic showing Federal Debt with a large spike in red

Information graphic designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008

Matching the design to the medium. The design had to look good projected in a movie theater, so the background couldn’t be sterile but it also couldn’t be so busy that it detracted from the information being presented.  Oakes chose a tan background with hairline vertical white lines.  He also darkened the outer edges which made it look like an old-time movie. The effect is rich, without being cluttered and creates a vintage feel which matched the money theme he used throughout.

Oakes’ animations have a big, cinematic feel despite the fact that what he’s essentially showing us are  pie charts and line graphs.  One of the ways he achieves this is by zooming in and out in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky but actually helps tell the story.  If you want ideas on how to use motion to make data easier to understand, then this movie is a must-see!

Matching the design to the data. The sheer volume of data (3 binders’ worth) and the need for accuracy and simplicity, plus the fact that you can’t just trot out chart after chart in a movie, required carefully thought out solutions.  Oakes created some memorable new visual metaphors for his story but also relied on tried-and-true data displays, like bar graphs.

Infographic showing an increase in percentage of GDP and an image of Woodrow Wilson

Information graphic designed by Brian Oakes, I.O.U.S.A., 2008

Telling a visual story. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We all know that on the macro level, the best presentations naturally follow this rhythm, but what about applying that approach at the micro level, to charts and graphs? Stories also have cause and effect. Oakes’ motion graphics tell dozens of mini stories with each sequence. Watch the movie for some great ideas on how to “humanize” info graphics and turn them into a narrative.

Creative use of brand elements. The “brand” for this movie is US currency. Oakes used a dollar bill and a penny as his source of inspiration for the look and feel of the movie and also as actual brand elements. In one animation, a penny rolls up and down along a timeline showing the amount national debt. In another clever sequence on federal oversight, he animates the signature of the treasury secretary as it appears on a dollar bill. Watch a short clip with a few sequences.

Cover of the documentary I.O.U.S.A.Even the movie poster has a lot to teach us about visual story telling. We immediately understand what’s happening, without having to be told. The White House (i.e. American government) is in financial trouble! The stormy sky and boarded up windows are great dramatic touches.

I hope you’ll get to see this “scary” movie.

Happy Halloween!

Watch the Movie Trailer

Food for thought:

  • How does the background you’re choosing perform in the medium the presentation will be viewed in?
  • Do your animations feel “trapped in a slide” or do they have a bigger, cinematic feeling?
  • Is there a simple but meaningful visual metaphor you could use as a theme?
  • Are you using movement and animation in a meaningful way to display the information in your charts, graphs, lists and timelines?
  • Is there a way you could combine images with data on graphs or charts, without getting cluttered?
  • Can you make your audience feel like they’re experiencing a story when they view your charts and graphs, instead of the inevitable “data blob,” because you display information in a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, an end and within this sequence you show cause and effect?