Smart Design for a Complicated Crisis

BY Arts Desk  June 3, 2009 at 5:17 PM EST

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

A short and simple story of the credit crisis? Do you have 11 minutes? That’s how long it takes designer Jonathan Jarvis to break down one of the most complicated financial news stories of the year in his video, “The Crisis of Credit Visualized.” Through illustrations and easy graphic explanations, it manages to do exactly what the title promises.

Jarvis’ film has been linked to by countless Web sites, and more than 2 million have watched it on video-sharing sites Vimeo and YouTube alone. Jarvis, who recently graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., said the hugely popular project started with a humble purpose.

“One day I was sitting in the studio listening to NPR and I heard the term subprime mortgage probably for the hundredth time, and I never had a whole understanding of what it meant, so I just decided to define the term for myself,” Jarvis said. “In that process, I had to learn a few other vocabulary words, for those new terms I had to learn some other ones, and it snowballed from there.”

To research the video, Jarvis first turned to newspapers and radio broadcasts, and then to friends in the investment banking industry who helped fill in the blanks. For each article or new bit of information, he drew little diagrams that he eventually pieced together into a big Adobe Illustrator document.

“I found that all the information was centered around individual aspects, and there wasn’t a really good holistic explanation of the whole thing,” he said. “I decided to make something that would answer all my questions from the day when I decided to ask what was a subprime mortgage, and it turns out a lot of other people felt the same way.”

As technology and demand has made the domain of the designer more varied and less defined — people graduating from his graduate program wrestle over whether to call themselves graphics, interactives or media designers — many, like Jarvis, have found new opportunities to apply visual elements and design principles to areas where they have not been traditionally found in the past, such as finance.

For Jarvis, his interest in “systems design” converged with his other longtime interest: the study of economic systems. His target audience for the video was the layman, “the person who wasn’t versed in these financial terms, or to someone who had heard all of them but didn’t know how they fit together and what was behind them.”

“It was really timely, I think,” says Jarvis, “[which] is why it became so popular. It explained a lot of terms people had been hearing, but didn’t fully understand how they fit together.”

The credit crisis is not the last complicated subject Jarvis plans to tackle. At his graduation, Jarvis experimented with live-action drawings to explain the stimulus package. (Jarvis showed the audience an address President Obama gave on the state of the nation, and drew explanations to answer audience member’s questions on an adjacent monitor.)

“My goal is to use these new tools to make sense of a world that’s only becoming more and more complicated,” he said. “You need these forms of visual synthesis to make things transparent.”

He gives the example of the financial transactions that are technically available through disclosure laws, but practically impossible to understand for most people.

“What I would like to do with my work is to take some of these concepts and distill them down to something that is understandable to people who aren’t specially trained,” he says, “because I think, not only is it helpful, but it will prevent corruption” by educating the public.

He hopes to see the same from other designers.

“I think there will be a lot of people doing it, not just because I did it. I think it’s a movement, just the next step in information graphics and hopefully transparency.”