Interview: Graphic Design Critic Jessica Helfand Digital gadgetry and on-demand media are changing the way we watch TV. Why wait for next week's episode when you can download a whole season from Netflix? Graphic design critic Jessica Helfand wants to harness that impatience and come up with more compelling short-form media.

The Future Of 'Short Attention Span Theater'

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On this Friday, we take a final look at "How We Watch What We Watch." We've been discussing how technology has transformed what it means to watch television - from innovations that began decades ago.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: RCA announces a major improvement in video cassette recording. Introducing SelectaVision 400. Set it today and for the next seven days, the 400 remembers the shows you want recorded. It'll turn itself on and off, up to four times.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Let RCA turn your television into SelectaVision.


Up to four times - we've come a long way since then. And one of the biggest changes is that we are now an on-demand audience. You can catch a baseball game on your phone while walking to work.

MONTAGNE: You can show co-workers a clip from a late-night show they missed, with barely a second's delay.

INSKEEP: And even then, the impatience people have with the speed of technology, has been fodder for one comedian - Louis C.K.


LOUIS C.K.: Now, we live in an amazing, amazing world, and it's wasted on the - on the (bleep) generation, of just spoiled idiots that don't care. Because this is what people are like now. They've got their phone, and they're like, eew, it won't...

Give it a second!


C.K.: Give it - it's going to space.


C.K.: Can you give it a second, to get back from space? Is the speed of...

INSKEEP: That was Louis C.K. a few years ago, on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." And his commentary brings up this question: Where is all this going?

MONTAGNE: If we demand this much today, what will things look like in 10 or 20 years? Jessica Helfand is the author of "Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture." MORNING EDITION's David Greene spoke to her about this.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So Jessica, does the comedian Louis C.K. have a point there?

JESSICA HELFAND: You know, David, I think he does have a point. The impatience with which people have come to expect everything delivered to them, is a - kind of a terrifying prospect. The "short attention span theater," I think, has been a long time coming; but it's particularly amplified through the degree to which we carry gadgets with us, everywhere we go.

GREENE: Short attention span theater - why do you find that terrifying?

HELFAND: You know, it's an interesting question. I asked my students a few days ago, how they felt about the degree to which they skim everything. So for example, a student will be doing an essay, reading, working, and checking Facebook six times in an hour.


HELFAND: So you just sort of - have to wonder, to what degree are they actually assimilating anything? And my big concern, I think, is how deep anybody can go if they're spread so thin, if they skim everything. It's like intellectual tapas, right? I mean, like everything is just sort of at this level of input that can't possibly be deep.

GREENE: Maybe that's why tapas restaurants are so popular, in this modern generation.


GREENE: Well, I wonder - you mention, I mean, you have undergraduate students, and they're checking Facebook six times in an hour. But this generation, these are the people who are going to be producing what we consume, and what we watch...

HELFAND: Well, that's exactly it, and I think they arc - they are both producers and consumers. And I think that's actually the opportunity and the challenge, right? So if - you know, a friend of mine actually referred to this recently, as, this is the culture of narrative deprivation. These are kids who don't watch an entire episode of "Saturday Night Live." They just go and watch the bits they want to see. They wait until a series comes out on Netflix, and they watch it all at once instead of in the classic episodic nature with which we typically would consume television.

So that control is really exciting to them. But to just control the consumption, is kind of a wasted opportunity. What I'm trying to do, and think about, is how we can kind of maneuver that thinking into creating better things, more compelling visual experiences on the screen that are very much constructed and conceived of within the dimensions of that short attention span. So for example, my students are making two-minute - sort of Twitter-length videos. So you're still sort of compartmentalized within that very short trajectory of information. But then the challenge is, can you go deep emotionally; can you go deep visually; can you make it, theatrically, something more compelling, but it still delivers something that's dramatically interesting, and specific to its time frame?

GREENE: Let me push back a little bit because you talk about narrative deprivation, and I think about some of the shows that younger people are watching today - I mean, you know, "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights." I mean, these programs that - you're using, you know, different types of technology; it's not sitting in your living room, watching them, necessarily. But these are still, you know, shows that have plots each episode. They have a beginning and end.

HELFAND: They do, but I think the patterns of consumption - for this generation - for watching them, is different. There is no cliffhanger anymore, right? There is no Friday afternoon hook from the soap opera, that you would wait Monday to see - and the ratings would go up.

GREENE: Because you have control over when you want to watch.

HELFAND: Because you do. And I raised this issue of narrative deprivation, to some of my students recently. And they said, well, no, we love stories; we love storylines; we love films. We just want to wait and watch the entire series of "Downton Abbey" when it comes out on Netflix. We're not going to wait.

So that's one thing. And another thing I would add to that is that they tend to watch things on their own laptops. But I do wonder how watching something alone, on a screen, will change their ability to understand and, of course, produce their own work in a way that's so different than previous generations - maybe better but certainly, different.

GREENE: What does all of this mean, would you say, for 10 or 20 years from now; for me as a television viewer, as a movie viewer? I mean, how will my experience be different, if this new generation is creating what I'm watching?

HELFAND: It's hard to imagine what will happen in the future. But I have to say, in my personal experience, so much effort and attention gets allocated to discussing the hardware that delivers; the delivery mechanisms for our mobile life. So the fact that you can get Wi-Fi on a plane; the fact that - I recently saw a video that someone had done - I think, in Germany - proposing the idea that you might be able to get your morning weather and news on your mirror. So you'd be shaving or brushing your teeth, and you could see it automatically come up.


HELFAND: So the seamlessness and the transparency with which we don't have to exert much effort at all and that push technology comes to us, what's hard for any of us to speculate is what the hardware will do. And I just - the unfortunate thing, I think, is that so much then gets expended on thinking about the box or the screen or the physical dimensions of how we experience a story instead of the content and the ideas and the innovation that we bring to it creatively and intellectually.

GREENE: Jessica Helfand, really interesting conversation. Thanks for joining us.

HELFAND: Thank you for having me, David.

GREENE: She teaches at the Yale University School of Art and is founding editor of the online design journal Design Observer.


INSKEEP: And if you've got the attention span, you can watch the Twitter-length videos Helfand mentioned and catch up on the rest of our series at our website,

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