A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, sound effects, and music.

Ambivalence is Death

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: theory

The audience says "meh" when you say "meh." Image: Arch Wear/Zazzle.

When you’re creating something, nothing kills faster than ambivalence.

I’m not talking about ambiguity. When the viewer or listener comes to your work, it’s OK to be ambiguous. The best art and design only goes halfway: The viewers themselves must ideally step up to the work and actively engage with it (or be engaged by it) in order to leave a significant emotional impact.

This is where a lot of abstract art fails. Too much mystery with too little to draw emotional interest can render the piece inaccessible even to willing viewers, a reaction that many have to the works of Rothko and Pollack, and even the much-maligned Wolff Olins Olympic logo design. Music can do this, too, when compositions are too abstract and even alienating, whether it’s some of the later works of Autechre or the atonal and complex works of Ligeti. But by leaving a few things tantalizingly uncommunicated, the audience can really engage their senses and curiosity to create a lasting impression which they, themselves, have helped create.

Ambivalence doesn’t lie in the work, or in the audience…it comes from the maker of the work. Ambivalence can be the result of making arbitrary decisions for the sake “done.” It can also come from facing an issue with the work and ignoring it or punting on it for later, and never circling back around to it.

In sound, ambivalence often comes from not taking a stand on big issues, like representation versus abstraction. If one scene has a mix of both very literal and very abstract sounds, the viewer may not understand what emotional state the characters are in. A confusing mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds – a classic snafu by sound designers who are driven by the coolest sounds, not the most appropriate sounds – can seriously muddle the narrative message. In game design, this can mean the difference between a player being oriented properly in the game world to misinterpreting sound cues that can lead to poor decision making in-game.

You can recognize ambivalence when you say, “tsk, I guess this will be OK.” You can anticipate ambivalence when you hit the point of, “we’ll circle back on this sound later in the mix and see if we can make it better,” but it never happens. You can smell ambivalence when working with clients, producers, or directors who don’t have clear visions for the emotional content of certain moments.

How does one fight ambivalence? One makes a stand. One analyzes the context of the design problems, and creates a framework, theory, or design approach that all decisions can refer back to. One digs one’s heels in and says, “For this use, and in this context, this approach feels emotionally right, for these reasons, and all aural decisions should be based on this framework.”

It’s not all bad news if this decision-making framework fails to produce the right results. If it doesn’t solve the problem, you at least know it’s the core thinking that’s flawed, not the specific sounds you chose. It’s how you’re using the sounds that’s the problem. The great thing about discovering that level of failure is that you can revisit the highest level of the problem and discuss it…this keeps the discussion at a more strategic level, which will help to prevent the client(s) from micro-managing the actual sound design and implementation process. That’s where your expertise comes in, and is most relevant.

Sure, it’s important to be right. But I think it’s more important to have an opinion, early and forcefully, even if it doesn’t work out. Fail early and often, as so many creative professionals suggest. Get your co-workers and clients used to evaluating your approach and thinking than the nitty gritty details of implementation. The former can help “scaffold” your decisions as you revise, whereas critiquing only the latter may not ever resolve the core issues of how sound can support the visual narrative.

Being wrong is better than being ambivalent…as long as you do so early enough that you can reframe the problem and course-correct before the due date.

Tags: , , , , , | 13 Comments »

13 Comments on “Ambivalence is Death”

  1. 1 Miguel said at 9:18 pm on February 3rd, 2011:

    Once again: Fantastic! :D

  2. 2 Dan Gallard said at 11:40 pm on February 3rd, 2011:

    Death to ambivalence! Great article.

  3. 3 Matt said at 1:34 am on February 4th, 2011:

    Another potent observation. Very well put, as usual. Thanks!

  4. 4 Steve said at 8:12 am on February 4th, 2011:

    Nathan, hitting the nail on the head one blog post at a time. Always enjoy your posts that make me analyze my own approach, tweak my outlook and be a better creator for it. Thanks!

  5. 5 Tim Walston said at 12:01 pm on February 4th, 2011:

    So well, written and thoughtfully presented. Great job!

  6. 6 Adam Glazier said at 12:11 am on February 5th, 2011:

    Wonderful observation Nathan. As you were describing the results of ambivalence, I couldn’t help but them to obsession as well.

    I notice the loss of accessibility in many works simply because the artist is obsessed with having meaning drive everything. For example, a common way to create art is to let data drive the outcome (eg: college students making art out of subway times). All to often, I find that this type of art or music becomes more of a token for the artists idea that has no relation to human observation other than the fact that it exists in our reality.

  7. 7 Nathan said at 10:32 am on February 5th, 2011:

    Fantastic parallel, @Adam. I agree that “procedural” or systems-based methods of producing art or design can be stunning just as often as it can be emotionally irrelevant. The leap of comprehension between the piece and the viewers’ can’t be too far, or the viewer is left not able to bring their own experiences to the work, thereby preventing a connection through which meaning is created. Art isn’t that different from anything else in the human condition, really: If it’s too self-absorbed, no one else will deign to care.

    (Noticed you’re a fellow local IxD. Holler if you want to grab a drink sometime! :-D)

  8. 8 Ryan said at 3:40 pm on February 5th, 2011:

    Hey Nathan, when is your birthday? I want to send you a book on Art that I think is right up your alley and you would get a lot out of. Let me know via e-mail if you wish.

  9. 9 Nathan said at 3:53 pm on February 5th, 2011:

    I continually and consistently become increasingly decrepit every September 22. :-)

  10. 10 Ryan said at 6:04 pm on February 5th, 2011:

    Dear Nathan, Alright fine. I can’t wait that long! I’ll make it an early present or maybe just for entertaining and inspiring me with your blog for the past year and a half. Whaddaya say?

  11. 11 Nathan said at 6:48 pm on February 5th, 2011:

    A very kind offer. I’ll follow up with you directly via email!

  12. 12 Ryan said at 9:28 pm on February 10th, 2011:

    Okay. Patiently awaiting.

  13. 13 jgrzinich said at 4:01 am on February 11th, 2011:

    Ah, nothing like the fear of failure and our belief in the perfect world to drown ourselves in the murky seas of ambivalence. What can be done to change the tides, to give confidence to artists for the glory of decisive action and to audiences, faith in creative powers they do not understand?
    Great post.


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