The Gamification of Graphic Design

The Internet is now the frontline of consumerism and capitalism, it is our access to goods and services and it’s the way they are advertised to us. The prolific nature of the internet combined with its unique accessibility has had a massive affect on graphic design. During the 20th century, when the term was first coined, graphic design has developed into one of the most influential professions in the world, and this has happened in no small part due to the globalisation of corporations and consumerism. After WW2, there was a boom in globalisation, as companies started to expand across borders and technology made travel more accessible to all. This brought with it the need to market your product and outsell your competition across multiple markets, which is when companies turned to graphic design and its ability to convey message. Companies rebranded, creating newer cleaner logos, developing new advertisement techniques, and really thinking about how they could reach an audience. These aims where accelerated by the proliferation of things like the TV, where a company had a direct line to the consumer and could carefully craft a message to present to them. This was the status quo for a few decades until the next seismic shift in society occurred, the birth of the internet. Much like the TV it gave companies a direct line to consumers, but unlike the TV was the wild west. With the internet a company no longer sent their advert to a TV channel with a lump of cash and a guaranteed audience of the channel’s viewers, now they had to attract people to visit their website and then further encourage them to stay and engage with it.

A couple decades later we find ourselves in the present, where the internet has taken over all other forms of media as well as out-competing brick and mortar retail. Nowadays most companies spend the majority of their advertisement budget on online marketing, and with good reason considering places like Amazon probably take more revenue monthly than the companies that still occupy the UK’s highstreets do annually. It’s no fluke either, because when you search for a product online using a search engine like Google, the top result will more than likely be that product listed on Amazon, often beating out the company that manufactures the product’s own website. The way that it all works is alien to most people who don’t either work for these big online corporations or spend ludicrous amounts of time studying it, but one thing for sure is the driving force is data.

For online retail, the main data of interest is things like Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) as this puts them at the top of the search engine and as a result makes the user more likely to click their link. But for other online industries like the entertainment industry graphic design plays a more pivotal role. If we take the online video sharing platform YouTube, for instance, we can see this new trend in full effect. The platform is at this point saturated with 720,000 hours of content being uploaded per day by creators, this means that certain automated measures have been put in place to manage this vast amount of video. YouTube has developed algorithms that manage the content on their site resulting in very little human intervention, but the algorithm and how it works is a mystery with content creators always having to guess how it functions and how best to make it work in their favour. One thing that has been identified though is that videos with high clickthrough rates get favoured by the algorithm and get recommended to more people as a result, which has led to channels investing more and more time into creating thumbnails. The main way to get a user to click your video is using the thumbnail of the video to entice them, this has led to an arms race between content creators to experiment and develop thumbnails that gain higher clickthrough rates than their competition. With thumbnail styles that may be more visually interesting or even more relevant to the video’s content being scrapped in favour of those that get more people to click them. Joe Hickson, a designer for the YouTube channel ‘The Yogscast’ who designs thumbnails for the channel, describes in one of his videos how when they changed the thumbnails for one of their series it increased the clickthrough rate by 20% and was shown to people 100,000 more times than previous videos in the series did in the first 24hrs of release. Whether or not they consider the new thumbnail an improvement visually, the improvement in impressions is sure to override any creative preference, and this is felt across the site by all its creators.

Another example of this is on the streaming website Netflix, where each movie or TV show is laid out with a thumbnail and a title. You may think that a designer has created these thumbnails much like they might have created a book cover or movie poster, but Netflix’s process is machine and data driven. They have algorithms that search through still frames of each show and use techniques to identify images that it deems the best to use as the thumbnail, then a designer steps in and uses the image to create a thumbnail. But it doesn’t stop there, once these thumbnails are created Netflix employs more technology to select a certain thumbnail that it thinks will make you more likely to click and these thumbnails change between users even for the same show. In a video on Vox’s YouTube channel, they describe this phenomenon, they use the example of Good Will Hunting. If Netflix sees that you watch a lot of comedy shows, then you will likely be shown a Good Will Hunting thumbnail featuring Robin Williams, a famous comedian, but if you are seen to watch more romantic content then your thumbnail for Good Will Hunting may be of the two main characters kissing. This manipulation is designed to make you more likely to click the thumbnail and watch the show or movie.

In this modern age of the internet all your interactions are recorded and analysed, and companies now use this data to inform their visual marketing in order to increase your likelihood to interact with their content. The two examples above are of video streaming websites but other industries employ the same techniques and use social media and search engines in particular to acquire data on you. This results in graphic design no longer being informed by the designer’s own creativity or ideas but instead led by data and statistics resulting in the gamification of Graphic Design.