Media Out of Your Mind: The Psychology of Media Production

Motion pictures such as "Star Wars," "IndependenceDay," "Birth of a Nation" or "Wag the Dog;" CD-ROMs such as Compton'sEncyclopedia, Myst or Dragons Lair; radio programs such as "War ofthe Worlds;" product containers such as Campbell's Soup and CocaCola. These are only several examples where marquee psychology iscentral in driving the success of a product.

This article explores the underlying psychologyupon which programs and services are developed. It describes thenature and scope of the psychology of producing media. The futurequality of education software &emdash; whether on campus, on theInternet or on television &emdash; will be driven by a new look andfeel as we enter the new century.

Producing media software is a communicationscraft. The successful producer must combine the knack of thinkingvisually, drawing upon a myriad of techniques taken fromcommunications arts including film, photography, writing, paintingand more, so that he/she can manipulate media elements and use themin the systems engineering task of production.

People use a variety of terms to describe variousaspects of producing media. These terms include human factors,ergonomics, cognitive engineering, user psychology, sensorypsychology or media psychology, to provide some examples. Each ofthese terms has its own inferences and nuance of meaning.

When examining the psychology of producing media,one immediately discovers many complexities and dimensions. Examplesof sub-specialties are: (1) the psychology of persuasion; (2) thepsychology of editing; (3) the psychologies of sound, color,attention, cognition, control, games and learning styles.

It is not possible to examine all of the facets ofthe psychology of producing media in one brief article. I can,however, provide examples and analysis to help show the nature, scopeand technique of production psychology.

The Psychology of Editing

All editors are essentially created equal in termsof technical resources. The technology of editing is quite advanced.The X-factor in non-linear editing is the "human factor." With music,for example, music theory and the practice of music principlesprovide the foundation. The human factor, otherwise called talent,brings a wonderful, almost charmed, distinctiveness to theapplication.

Non-linear editing represents a high art form.This is especially true when trying to do storytelling. We allperceive and experience events. When we go from place to place, suchas driving to the market, we experience certain perception edits.While driving, we notice scenery and cars as they pass. The car'sengine and radio provide context, continuity and language. Music mayinfluence mood. When we open the door, we step out into a whole newenvironment. When we enter a building by passing through doors, orclimb a stairway or look up at a light, we change points ofview.

Whether editing a linear story or interactivescenario, combinations of edits show and tell the story with aperspective. One needs a vision to communicate or an idea to share.There are always multiple editing cuts employed in the context ofrecognition and perception. Perceptions may be created with varyingdegrees of sensitivity. Without "accurate empathy," which requires"seeing through the eyes of the beholder," the best equipment willnot help. The psychology of editing represents one of the manyemerging, sophisticated specialties in our changing media world.Editing in a way that stimulates emotion, creates understanding andrivets attention requires the highest level of editingskill.

The Psychology of Emotions

As a second example, let us examine the psychologyof emotions. Sensory psychology or synesthetics represents the studyof the experiences resulting from a uniting of the senses. Adding onesense to another facilitates an experience of higher intensity. Thisconcept is central to stimulation strategy in media.

Synesthetics is the study of uniting of thesenses. It is the response occurring when one sense is added toanother. Synesthetics is perhaps the line of research most criticalto the development of media psychology's emotional dimension. In thenew media, our total environment is based on multi-sensory responsesto various audio-visual elements.

Synesthetics coupled with television or computerinteraction creates sensory rivalry and may create positive ornegative experiences or reactions to information, ideas orpresentations. Each stimulus may create positive or negativeexperiences or reactions. One stimulus may create a positivereaction; others may create conflicts of cues or sensory rivalry. Theresult, in any case, is emotion from a union of senses stimulated bythe multimedia experience.

Examples of such experiences include seeing a boatrocked by waves. This may activate a sense of imbalance in anobserver to the extent that it causes seasickness. Viewing a paintingof an Arctic scene of frost and snow may evoke the sensation of icycold, producing goose bumps. Hearing an explosion or gunshot may givethe illusion of being struck. Looking at a picture of appetizing foodmay, in turn, evoke sensations of taste and smell. Each of theseexamples represents a potential behavior or psycho-visual resultengendered by a multimedia interaction.

To achieve the results we are after, we must usethe psychology of editing described earlier, plus the psychologies ofcolor, sound, movement, situational cognition and storytelling, eachof which comes into play when creating these scenarios.

The Psychology of Language

Semantics represents the incisive use of language.Managing language is fundamental to communication and central to ourability to understand. One simple example may be seen where examiningthe use of the word "quit." "Quit" is a pejorative term offrustration that means "to give up." "Quit" also is a softwareprogramming term that is used for programmers when writing code.Unfortunately, it has found its way to the user. The subliminalresponse to the word "quit" is negative when it is used ineducational or consumer programs. Better choices would be "end" or"stop" or "pause" since they convey appropriate meaning without theimplications of failure that the word "quit" conveys. Words, theiruse and articulation, alliteration, intonation and patterns, arecentral to media communications.

The Psychology of Symbols

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols inhuman communication. Semiotics plays an important role in mediabecause visual symbol manipulation facilitates the human-machineinterface. Symbols facilitate understanding, communication and thecreation of relationships. Icons enable navigation and control overmedia pathways. Clear, creative and careful use of symbols gives riseto iconography as a highly developed semiotic skill.

The graphical interface, through which informationis made accessible onscreen, is the principal point of contactbetween the machine and the person. Graphic interface design,iconography and navigation strategies are central to emergingprogramming architecture and insightful use of symbols. Theyrepresent a fundamental skill requirement for those who use media incommunication. Microsoft, Netscape, Yahoo and all the other producerssearch ardently to find symbols and methods that are intuitive,friendly, representational and easy to use.

These several examples illustrate the range andscope of production related media psychology. The various aspects ofmedia psychology come together in production and are manifested intechniques, based on principles of psychology that give us practicalparameters and techniques for producing better programs.

Production Techniques

Let's look at a small selection of techniques thatflow from the principles of media psychology. The following 21production techniques are central to making better programs andexemplify concepts described earlier.

1. Uncluttered backgrounds are better for imageclarity and comprehension. A straightforward presentation isgenerally best.

2. Narration should be conversational withsignificant voice modulation. Dull and boring documentary stylenarration is not sufficiently energizing. Jack Nicholson, CharltonHeston, Meryl Streep and Danny Glover are some of the narrators withwhom I have worked who understand what they are saying and speak withenergy and modulation. Monotone or clinical, emotionless narration isone of the perpetuated myths of documentary production. Sound alwayssets the tone and affects what one sees. An audience sees with itsears.

3. Fades to black are normally not effective.Fading to blue or another default color, or dissolving from imagedirectly to another image make a presentation look more seamless.These techniques remove jarring transitions from image to image andimprove the relationship between visuals. Remember; black is thecolor of a "crash" in computer software.

4. A program should never take control away fromthe user. The user should be able to interrupt the programming, andskip to another activity or choice at any time. Taking control awaybreaks concentration and implies the program knows more than theperson using it d'es. Freezing interactivity and forcing the user towait for a "message" or a play function before being able to continueor exit makes the user feel like a hostage.

5. Too many buttons or icons are confusing. Keepthe number to a minimum and make the symbols internationally genericand very clear.

6. Avoid the tendency to over-design andunder-explain control features.

7. A good "how to" is critical to almost everyprogram. Interactive content is invisible. Many educators andprofessionals in the industry agree that a linear "how to" is best,even in an interactive program.

8. Music heightens emotion and increases theenthusiasm and energy of participation. Research shows thatappropriate music increases the viewer's perception of pictures,sustains mood and provides pace.

9. Some activity on the screen is preferable atall times. Activity attracts and helps hold attention. Dead screenslose attention in a very short time.

10. Fonts must be large, clear and readable. Thetendency to tightly pack small text should be avoided.

11. Contrasting colors are clearer from eight toten feet away. This will be relevant as TV-PC software comes intovogue.

12. Dead ends in navigation create confusion andfrustration. All interactive programs should always have a reasonablenumber of branches.

13. Sentences presented using text must be shortand very carefully edited. The wordsmith is clearly an importantmedia craftsman. Underscore text with voice for greaterimpact.

14. Too much content in a program is as bad as toolittle. Encyclopedias may be designed so that one will never see allthe material, but with most products, there must be a sense ofcompletion and accomplishment to create satisfaction for theuser.

15. Look and feel, structure, content, artdirection and functionality are programming elements that should beevaluated separately.

16. Scripts should be written and spoken usingproper language, avoiding both slang and overuse of contractions.Regional accents tend to narrow audience identification with thenarrator and the material being presented.

17. Transparency is the key to the link betweenthe mind and emotions of the user and the content of a program. Allintervening functionality needs to be as self-evident as possible toremove any guesswork that interferes with access.

18. The "you attitude" is the basis for contentand script and user-centered activity. Use of the word "you" placesthe focus upon the receiver of the information and is the basis ofgood communication. It attracts the interest of the person whom youare targeting and engenders a measurable emotionalreaction.

19. Control bars in interactive media should bejust that, interactive and selectable, unless there is a compellingreason to freeze them.

20. Highlighting text with color makes fontseasier to read.

21. Every program should have a linear play modeof some sort. The "how to" may serve a dual purpose in certaincircumstances. Without a linear play feature, a clear grasp of thecontent may allude the user and the content could remain invisible.Users should not have to struggle too hard to understand the"strategy" of the navigation design. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan,"The Message is the Message."


PC-TV Convergence

The difference between the PC and the TV isdisappearing. Networks of PC and TV communications will be common inour new century. The "screenager, webhead" generation, looking for PCcinema, and the cyber-patrollers speaking "webonics" and dreamingvirtual dreams, are here now. This evolution to the cyber-generationhas significant implications for all society in the new millenniumand particularly for our industry. This paragraph may seem as thoughit carries substantial jargon. This is, however, the language ofmedia now. The future of media is "screen deep," and rife with newwords and meanings.

During the 1980's the spread of the PC and thegrowth of productivity software ensued. Today, laser and digitaladvances are marking the 1990's as the "decade of the gadget."Cheaper, smaller, faster gadgets and appliances are proliferating.The quality of much of the programming, however, still has a long wayto go. The next decade will bring forth a great deal of new mediaprogramming and production techniques. As a result, psychology isbecoming more and more significant. Media psychology provides thebasic principles underpinning all quality productions.

Almost 100 years ago, the psychology of motionpictures began to evolve from still photographs. The science ofmotion pictures advanced through silent films to "talkies." Until1914, all cinematic cameras were static, locked in one stationaryposition. Legendary director D.W. Griffith had the insight to movethe camera while filming his masterpiece, "Birth of a Nation,"thereby forever changing the nature of filmmaking and allowing theaudience a "point of view" for the first time. Griffith used hisgenius to experiment with angles and cuts and stimulated the earliestthoughts about the psychology of editing, storytelling and thepresentation of "movies."

The 1950's brought the first widespread use ofcolor-processed negatives to the screen. The 80's brought bettersound. The 90's gave us morphing techniques, transactions andinteractive technology. The 21st century is bringing the recognitionthat there is a whole new media psychology to be understoodthroughout all of education and telecommunications.

TV is moving from its passiveness toward the firstdegrees of interactivity. The PC is moving from its role exclusivelyin the framework of productivity toward including mainstreamentertainment. In the 80's the PC was seen as a work technology andthe TV was seen as entertainment technology. Stereotyped perceptionstill dominates. As interactive television, satellites and wirelesscommunications improve and change, our perceptions will also changeand "interactive television," whether via PC or TV, will be themedium.


Leadership Makes the Difference

Now is the time to foster greater understanding ofhow to make the programs and services people want. The motion pictureindustry provides a good analogy to help understand production inmany media. The areas of photography, art direction, sound editing,special effects, lighting, screenwriting and adaptation, directing,editing, and all other stages of pre and post-production provide amedia model with a century of success upon which to draw. The globalpublic has developed a level of expectancy from every screen thatbegs attention. No matter that the screen is 70mm Imax or 15-inchCompaq. People have come to expect from all screens at least thelevel of production quality they commonly see on their hometelevision sets.

Achieving the potential of media in our futuremeans "unlocking its power through understanding." At this stage,leadership may turn out to be the most important single factor inadvancing the social and industry understanding of media and the newtelecommunications world. Dwight D. Eisenhower used to demonstratethe art of leadership with a simple piece of string. He would put thestring on the table and say, "Pull it, and it will follow youanywhere. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all." Producers shouldlead by example.

In the context of leadership in producing new andbetter programs, media communications can create richer, moreelaborate relationships and enhance commerce, healthcare, politics,education and entertainment. Now, the strategies must be right andpractitioners must understand the "why" as well as the "how" of mediaproduction. It is no longer enough to produce by rote or formula. Onemust understand media psychology to produce well in media. People aredriven by their emotions when they are correcting a deficiency,engaging in personal development or simply having fun.


Future Developments

Technology will not be the defining feature ofsuccessful media. New media and technology will create an essentiallynew environment. The ten factors listed below serve as examples ofkey developments that will be central to this environment:

• A new grasp of sensory media;

• Broadcast is being replaced by access, withthe power and control moving into the hand of the user;

• Technology and high quality sensoryprogramming (messages) will reshape many markets;

• Real-time networked communities of interestwill heighten the "heat" of communication between people;

• Communication is getting more personal,rather than less personal;

• The market trend toward self-service willgrow significantly;

• Competition will increase because ofdiversity;

• Personalized brands will become much morecommon;

• Wireless digital communication will linkeveryone, everywhere, even in remote locations; and

• Programming of all types will be producedin new ways.

The discipline of the psychology of producingmedia will become part of many university programs dealing with allforms of media. It will also become critical when researching ways toimprove the media and in making technologies more effective and userfriendly. It will extend to all commercial fields, and in thedevelopment of media for physically, psychologically and mentallychallenged populations. The psychology of media production is nowfundamental to successful programming for education, commerce,entertainment, religion and politics. Understanding the principlesthat comprise the basis for the psychology of production isimperative for all professionals in the burgeoning new programmingand services industry of the next century.

Dr. Bernard J. Luskin, Ph.D., is Chairman and CEOof CBCom, Inc., a media and telecommunications company. He haspreviously served as CEO of several Fortune 500 telecommunicationsand software companies. Dr. Luskin is a former university andcommunity college president and author of seven books as well ashundreds of CDs and television programs. He currently is a visitingprofessor at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Luskin also serves onT.H.E. Journal's Editorial Advisory Board.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.