Charles and Ray Eames: Psychologically Inspired?

In the last post, I introduced the early film and multimedia work of Charles and Ray Eames. The subject of their fourth film (Claude Shannon’s information theory in 1953’s A Communications Primer) and the content of the world’s first multimedia presentation were inherently interconnected. In fact, Primer was one of several components of that seminal multimedia teaching presentation, Rough Sketch for a Sample Lesson of a Hypothetical Course. Rough Sketch was developed in conjunction with their long time friend, designer George Nelson.


I also discussed Charles and Ray’s fascination with photography and incredible collection of images, many of their own manufacture and others culled from a variety of sources for new projects. Here’s a look at their office in the 70s.


In 1958, the US Department of State, via Nelson, commissioned a film from Charles and Ray for a cultural exchange between the USSR and the United States. Reciprocal exhibitions highlighting science, technology and culture were scheduled for the summer of 1959. The Eameses were given free reign for their portion of the exhibition. Their masterful Glimpses of the USA was shown over a period of weeks to nearly three million Soviet citizens in a Buckminister Fuller-designed geodesic dome on seven screens. Each screen was 20 feet high and 32 feet wide.


2200 images (overwhelmingly stills, although there were some film segments, notably from Some Like It Hot by the Eames’s friend Billy Wilder) were displayed in the 12 minute film. Doing the math and assuming that the image on each screen was changed equally often, images were displayed for roughly 2 seconds each. A New York Times reporter suggested


Perhaps fifty clover-leaf highway intersections are shown in just a few seconds. So are dozens of housing projects, bridges, skyscraper scenes, supermarkets, universities, museums, theatres, churches, farms, laboratories and much more.


Later, in describing the process of making the film, Charles told Owen Gingerich, a long-time friend and Harvard astronomer in a 1977 article that


We wanted to have a credible number of images, but not so many that they couldn’t be scanned in the time allotted. At the same time, the number of images had to be large enough so that people wouldn’t be exactly sure how many they have seen. We arrived at the number seven. With four images, you always knew there were four, but by the time you got up to eight you weren’t quite sure. They were very big images – the width across four of them was half the length of a football field…We tried out various tricks and rhythms in changing the images. We discovered that if you had seven images and changed one of them, this put an enormously wasteful, noninformative burden on the brain, because with every change the eye had to check every image to see which one had changed. When you’re busy checking you don’t absorb information.


LOOP, the American Institute of Graphic Arts Journal of Interaction Design Education, suggested in a 2001 article that Charles and Ray’s arrival at the number of screens was “intuitive”, and that seems likely – or maybe not?


Consider the cornerstone article in cognitive psychology, George Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” published in Psychological Review in 1956. Miller considered previous work on memory span, tone identification, and loudness, taste intensity and visual position judgments. The result of this survey of available research led Miller to state


My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

I shall begin my case history by telling you about some experiments that tested how accurately people can assign numbers to the magnitudes of various aspects of a stimulus. In the traditional language of psychology these would be called experiments in absolute judgment.

They just don’t write scientific articles like that anymore – check the McCarthy reference!


You can see the profound influence that Shannon’s ideas about communication and the measurement of information had on Miller, who is widely considered as the first modern cognitive psychologist:

If you will now imagine a communication system, you will realize that there is a great deal of variability about what goes into the system and also a great deal of variability about what comes out. The input and the output can therefore be described in terms of their variance (or their information). If it is a good communication system, however, there must be some systematic relation between what goes in and what comes out. That is to say, the output will depend upon the input, or will be correlated with the input. If we measure this correlation, then we can say how much of the output variance is attributable to the input and how much is due to random fluctuations or “noise” introduced by the system during transmission. So we see that the measure of transmitted information is simply a measure of input-output correlation.

Paul Schrader wrote a fabulous article about the Eames films (Poetry of Ideas: The Films of Charles Eames), in which Charles was also interviewed. The piece appeared in Film Quarterly in 1970. Schrader asks:

One of the most consistent techniques in your films is information-overload, that is, you habitually give more data than the mind can assimilate. What do you think is the effect of this cascading level of information on the viewer? Do you think this effect can be conditioning, that it can expand the ability to perceive?

Charles responded:

I don’t really believe we overload, but if that is what it is, we try to use it in a way that heightens the reality of the subject, and where, if the viewer is reduced to a sampling, that sampling will be true to the spirit of the subject.

Schrader brings up Brawne’s observation (in 1966) that the Eames method “corresponds closely with the way the brain normally records the images it receives.” Schrader asks:

Do you feel this is actually the way the brain works, and is that why you used that technique?

Charles expands:

Because the viewer is being led at the cutter’s pace, it can, over a long period, be exhausting. But this technique can deliver a great amount of information in the way we normally perceive it – we did this pretty consciously.

charlesrayprimer.jpg charlesrayglimpses.jpg

Charles and Ray were information seekers of the highest order. I suggest that they were familiar with George Miller’s work and that it spurred them to use seven screens for Glimpses. The Eameses had so many friends in academic circles; Paul Morrison was a physicist with whom Charles and Ray would later make Powers of Ten, and they had an enduring friendship with UCLA mathematics professor Raymond Redheffer. One might say that it would have been hard for them to avoid the emerging science of the mind – they were likely drawn to it. I have seen no media scholars make an explicit connection in the way I am hypothesizing, but this just means I’ll have to get to the Library of Congress and dig through their extensive collection of materials to find out.

One final thing — problem solving was the Eames’s passion and led them to their discussion of Claude Shannon and an early position as proponents of the computer. Commissioned exhibitions for IBM in the 1960s would extend the boundaries of multiscreen exhibition. But they were careful to put a human face on their public discussions of the new roles for information processing in everyday life. People were affectively moved by Glimpses of the USA, and it was no accident. The moving image of Wilder’s selected by Charles and Ray for Glimpses was Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss, the message of which is universal, and communicated without relying on Monroe’s celebrity (she was unknown to the Soviet audience).


The film ends with another universal message in the form of forget-me-not flowers, which coincidentally have the same name in Russian. Indeed, the emotional touch on Glimpses was not novel for Charles and Ray; the sample message communicated in A Communications Primer was “I love you.”


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