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Bouba, Kiki, And The Crime of Incuriosity

I feel that, among my readership, there’s a selection bias toward appreciation for nerdy and esoteric topics that will lead some portion of you to know immediately the effect I’m referring to. For those who don’t, you’re one of the lucky ten thousand! Also, this post is directed in particular at programming events (corporate, nonprofit, dinners, etc) not especially music, though some of the lessons could apply to music, as well.

The bouba / kiki effect, as it has been named, is what’s termed a “mapping” between sounds and the visual shapes of objects, and this mapping happens across cultures, ages, nationalities, and almost any other grouping you can think of. When shown the following picture:

Which is the bouba, and which is the kiki?

most people “map” the word “kiki” to the shape on the left, and the word “bouba” to the shape on the right. There’s lots of fascinating neuroscience that’s been done on exactly why this is, but speculation about why exactly this might be proceeds in ways that seem to make intuitive sense:

“The rounded shape may most commonly be named “bouba” because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sounds in “kiki”. Alternatively, the distinction may be between coronal or dorsal consonants like /k/ and labial consonants like /b/.”

D’Onofrio, Annette (2013). “Phonetic Detail and Dimensionality in Sound-shape Correspondences: Refining the Bouba-Kiki Paradigm”. Language and Speech and McCormick, Kelly; Kim, Jee Young; List, Sara; Nygaard, Lynne C. (2015). “Sound to Meaning Mappings in the Bouba-Kiki Effect”

We seem inclined to associate the “sharper” sound with the physically “sharper” object, and vice versa, and we do this intuitively and generally without training. Fascinating, this science, you say, but what relevance to our lighting lives? Well, here is the relevance: I notice a frequent mismatch between a lot of the programming that I’m seeing on shows and the feel and flow of the content being presented. Inappropriately choppy, disjointed, or lacking proper fade times and use of paths. Instruments swinging through crowds with dimmers open to find their front wash focus positions as though to scream “HELLO I AM A MOVING LIGHT WATCH ME MOVE!” Surely we are more advanced than this, which paints the entire profession as sloppy and uncaring. We as humans intuitively map sounds and shapes together, so too should lighting designers cultivate an intuitive sense of mapping their lighting looks and transitions into the larger context of what’s happening in the show. This is not (typically) an industry of singular artists toiling in ivory towers to deliver fully-formed artistic visions from high atop the thing. Artists of video and words and cameras and sound work together to create a collaborative piece for an audience, and lighting is but one tile in this mosaic, and lighting designers must pay attention to the other stuff happening on stage so they can be collaborative and not disruptive.

Examples of what constitutes this mismatch are easily-spotted, if you know where to look. When programmers fail to take into account the contours of the content and event they’re programing for, you get mistakes like making transitions between looks too abrupt, or creating effects that don’t match what’s going on on the screens or within the branding. Consider a real-life example from a recent show with content featuring very large fields of color sliding gracefully from one side of the screen to the other. In response, the programmer created as an accompanying look a randomized “sparkle” effect, snap on / snap off, on the lights around the stage, in a color that did not exist within the brand identity¹. Other transitions between looks in this particular instance were similarly jarring, with lights swinging wildly through the audience instead of fading off before moving, changing gobos without fading out first, and gobos that didn’t have any discernible connection to the content and branding. This is lighting distraction and “flash n trash” at its worst; a cobbled-together mess of nonsensical visual statements that showed, at best, a lackadaisical attitude toward the myriad elements of the production they were ostensibly contributing to.

What I think I’m describing here is a failure to take into account a fundamental principle of design, which I think we can describe accurately as coherence, the belonging of the various parts of an artwork. In reality, these various elements might be unrelated, but within the confines of a production and our exercise of control over it, the color, shape, motion, proportion and other attributes combine to form a sense of unity. In a design that incorporates as many elements as an event or experience or dinner party where there are significant amounts of production, it’s important to be aware of coherence across these disparate elements. Color is a big one, and I’m dismayed at the many LDs who get this wrong. When you’re working with a corporate client, often they’ve picked their colors very, very carefully, and go to great lengths to ensure consistency in their branding colors across mediums. Because the brand has likely worked very closely with whatever team is doing the graphics for their presentations but probably not the lighting department, it’s important to take the initiative and make palettes for all the colors in the branding, and make sure they match as closely as possible the graphics and content on the screen. I’m honestly shocked by how often lighting designers overlook this – it’s incredibly sloppy-looking and makes you look as though you are not paying attention. I once worked with an LD who, upon seeing the corporate colors of cyan and yellow, random-selected the fixtures around the room and turned half of them to pure LED blue and half to pure LED amber. It looked ri-freaking-diculous, and I immediately made him fix it. The same goes for not matching white palettes across fixture types. When you’ve a rainbow of whites criss-crossing back and forth across the stage, you’re giving the entire industry a poor image by doing shoddy work².

Coherence has other important dimensions to consider: brightness, shape, motion. Coherence in motion means matching the motion of the lights, your effects and dimmer chases and sweeps to the content and especially the feel of the event itself. Is it appropriate to do a flash-n-trash bally when the CEO is walking on stage? In some contexts, that might be acceptable or even desirable, but in the majority of cases, restraint and polish is called for when doing programming of this sort. If the director asks for some motion when people are walking up, consider the set design: is it symmetrical? Consider a subtle symmetrical color or dimmer chase, and make sure that it fades and in and out as appropriate. Unless the content has a lot of elements snapping to different states in a jarring and disjointed way, don’t let your lights do that. Make sure your gobo changes happen in black when possible, and don’t use effects that don’t have a fade times built into them.

The bouba / kiki effect is interesting to me in this context because I think most people, if they were shown an example of “choppy” and “coherent” programming, they could probably pick out which they liked more. Consciously or not, we’re drawn to art that is cohesive, more balanced, more harmonious. When we see smooth motion in content or when the flow of an event is even and polished, it seems we should understand intuitively the style of programming that should go along with that. We should fade between scenes, our effects should have few if any abrupt changes or hard dimmer chases. It should thematically match everything else that’s going on in the room. It should be harmonious. If there are smooth elements in the video content, lighting transitions should be similarly smooth. If the color changes gently from one scene to another, the lights not only should follow that color change, but it might be appropriate to make the color follow the content in terms of stage direction, sweeping from left to right, or whichever way the content is going. We all know what snapping through a cuelist with a zero-second fade time looks like; don’t let your programming look like that. Of course, if there are bumps and hits and snaps and sizzles that need those more in-your-face elements, then let loose. Paths are another often-ignored way to add polish and coherence to shows. Paths are a function that several desks have that applies cue changes over time in a non-linear manner, for instance, applying the changes as an S curve so that lights start moving slowly, speed up in the middle, and then slow down. This mimics how objects move in nature, and looks more aesthetically-pleasing than a linear move in the right context. The point is not specifically about a light swinging wildly through an audience or a gobo change being visible; it’s about these things happening in the wrong context. The intuitive grasp we all need is one of context.

How to gain this intuitive sense? I strongly advocate for watching the lighting of highly-respected lighting designers and copying, at least at first, their techniques and looks until you understand the hows and whys of how they work. The lighting industry has existed for many years, and there are “standard” ways of doing things for a reason. Building mark cues, mastering split / individual timings, constructing a smooth front wash without dark or bright spots, creating eye-pleasing symmetrical chases and effects quickly. Practically, one needs to understand and appreciate these standard forms and practices before you can start breaking out and experimenting with your own styles and tastes. Like an apprentice painter learning to imitate the old masters, lighting design is an art that one must be in some sense immersed in the history of to create greatness. The practitioners of the art have, over many years, distilled some fairly hard truths about what looks good and works, and while this artistic knowledge is the beginning of mastery, not the end, it is certainly essential.

This being an examination of the symptom, what then, is the problem? It’s somewhat difficult to discern where, actually, it lies; it’s almost certainly a combination of the following factors in ratios unique to an individual. Some of it might be the operator not knowing their console very well, perhaps not knowing how to program split timings or use paths. Some programmers might simply be in over their heads and not have the mental bandwidth to get into more advanced programming. In at least some cases, a fragile ego plays a role, with the programmer assuming that because they had skill in one lighting area, they had skill in another, combined with some level of incompetence. The programmers I have in mind in these particular instances were also guilty of some just egregiously bad programming practices, like refusing to use groups and palettes.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t write about running across a fellow lighting person who I judged as merely more incompetent than they ought to be, given their seniority and position. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, so widespread it has its own named principle. But after two shows dealing with two separate lighting people who were making almost the exact same mistakes, I started to wonder if perhaps what’s going on is a stagnation of curiosity brought on by the reasons we’ve discussed.

We’ve all met people in our lives who commit the disappointing crime against themselves of incuriousity. The person who throws up their hands and says “Whatever” and walks away without finding out why, or how. We’ve all met people in our lives who stop wanting to learn new things, rely on outdated heuristics and information and are uninterested in replacing their outdated knowledge with more up-to-date facts. Whatever institutional or industry knowledge they’ve built up over the years ossifies and becomes…not useless, exactly, because when you need to know where in autoexec.bat. the himem.sys statement goes, well, you need Stan with the crusty soup-stained tie to tell you what’s what. But when you need someone that you know knows all the features and ins and outs of their software, you’re not going to go for the dude who not only refuses to learn and use the features of his console, but rejects any and all feedback³. Because those features are there to help you, they’re there to save you time, and ultimately, you need data-management features like that because our human brains are just not good at understanding giant spreadsheets of numbers.

Having genuine curiosity about your craft and the variety of programming techniques and tools should lead quite naturally to its cousin, excellence. Excellence is not refusing to take feedback, it is not carelessly slopping some colors into a cuelist on a show without taking note of the values or putting them into a preset or a palette. Excellence is taking a step back to examine your work within the larger context of what’s happening on the stage and turning your critical eye to your own creation to see if it works, and then being ruthless in paring back what does not contribute to the multi-faceted event you’re working on. Excellence is being scrupulous with notes and data organization, it is matching your programming to the speed and smoothness of the event at hand, it is creating smooth and flowing transitions even if it means more keystrokes and more time. Even if the pace of the event or music is frenetic, excellence is taking the time to make it coherent with the rest of the production and never allowing sloppiness to become a habit.

It is caring deeply about your craft, and committing yourself to doing the best with what you have in the time you have. And that, I think, is all, and the best, that we can ask of ourselves.

  1. Not matching colors to branding identity at a corporate show is my freaking berzerk button.
  2. Lights being the messy mechanical non-ideal devices that they are, you’re never going to land precisely on the CIE coordinates deemed acceptable by the marketing director. What I’m discussing is a failure of artistic vision, not the limitations of current lighting technology.
  3. But that’s another story.

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