Learning from the “Powers of Ten”

Charles and Ray Eames.

To most designers, the Eames name brings to mind rows and rows of molded plywood chairs and Herman Miller furniture of the 1950s. But the Eameses were more than just designers of furniture, they were masters of exploration and experimentation into the realm of experience.

The Eameses used many media to model experience and ideas. The model was a key tool in their design process. The model allowed them to walk through an experience and offered a way to visualize the possibilities and the layers of meaning. One of the modeling tools they used quite frequently was film.

Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the final “Powers of Ten” film.
Click to enlarge.

Throughout their career, they made over 120 short films.1 They ranged in topic from the world of Franklin and Jefferson to advanced mathematical explanations to the scientific exploration of scale in the “Powers of Ten.” The exploration into film helped them explore an idea, work out the presentation and the layers of information and understand a process or theory. The Eameses often carried an idea through multiple versions in order to find the right approach to a problem.

On the Eames Office website, Lucia Dewey Eames writes:

“A film could be a model, not simply a presentation of an idea, but a way of working it out. Looking back at the way the office worked, there is a constant sense that the best way to understand a process was to carry it all the way through. For example, in the creation of the project that became the film “Powers of Ten,” first came a test known as “Truck Test,” then the production of “Rough Sketch” (8 minutes; color, 1968), which was a model of the idea of the journey in spatial scale. Only by carrying the idea all the way through could one see the right way to approach the problem. And, indeed, the final version of “Powers of Ten” (9 minutes; color, 1977) has quite a few differences. But both films are models in a more important sense: they are models of the idea of scale. Because such Eames models managed to capture the essence of the problem, they were in fact quite satisfying in their own right.”2

In an interview in ISdesigNET magazine, Charles and Ray’s grandson, Eames Demetrious says:

“There may be a tendency to assume the films are a charming footnote: Furniture designers making films. But that is not how it was, not how Charles and Ray saw it at all. For them, the films were an intrinsic part of the process.”3

“The Powers of Ten,” perhaps their most successful film, is one such model into the nature of scale. The first version, developed in 1968 for the annual meeting of the Commission on College Physics, went under the title, “A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe.” (8 minutes; color, 1968). In 1977, with the help of Philip Morrison, professor of physics at MIT, they updated and refined the work under the new title, “The Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero” (9 minutes; color, 1977). The film sought to visualize the relative size relationships of elements through space and time and expose what happens when you add another zero to the equation.

“The ‘Powers of Ten’ also represents a way of thinking—of seeing the interrelatedness of all things in our universe. It is about math, science and physics, about art, music and literature. It is about how we live, how scale operates in our lives and how seeing and understanding our world from the next largest or next smallest vantage point broadens our perspective and deepens our understanding.”4
—Powers of Ten website

Series of Sketches for the Films
Chart plotting sequences of “Powers of Ten”
Storyboard sketch 1
Storyboard sketch 2
Storyboard sketch 3
Storyboard sketch 4

The film starts by showing an image of a sleeping man at one meter square (100) and gradually pulls back, moving ten times away for every ten seconds of time that passes, eventually reaching the edge of the universe (1025). The camera then zooms forward, into the sleeping man’s hand, finally reaching the inside of an atom (10-18).

Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the “Rough Sketch.”
Click to enlarge.

The exploration of information presentation in the “Rough Sketch” and in the final “Powers of Ten,” speaks to the value of models that the Eameses used to explain their ideas about information organization and presentation. The imagery explores both size relationships and time. It explores the visual relationships of elements and developing patterns that emerge at different scales. The control panel (in the “Rough Sketch”) that is always present on the screen visualizes another six levels of information at its peak.

The combination of imagery and the control panels explores the nature of simultaneous presentation of information. The Eameses push the boundaries of what can be taken in and understood at any one time, they play with the notion of information overload and information absorption. The 1968 version (“Rough Sketch”) explores more levels of simultaneous information than the 1977 final version, in which the panel display is reduced to its most essential information and relocated for better comprehension and retention.

Sponsored by IBM, the film was one of the many efforts that the Eameses worked on to bring science, technology and art together in a way the average person could understand.

“Eames approached the problem in universal terms (to please the ten-year-old as well as the nuclear physicist) and, as in designing a chair, sought to find what was most common to their experience. Sophisticated scientific data was not the denominator (although the film had to handle such matters with complete accuracy to maintain credibility), but it was the inchoate ‘gut feeling’ of new physics which even the most jaded scientist, as Eames says ‘had never quite seen in this way before.’”5

Although more than 20 years old, the series of films offers lessons on successful presentation and explorations of layered information. The information problems explored through film, by the Eameses, are really no different than many of the problems facing information architects today. Studying the Eames’ work and their processes may yield effective processes for today’s IA. Using different media and methods in prototyping and modeling of ideas, as well as presenting layers of information in a way that is simple and elegant, the Eameses succeeded in their original goals:

“The sketch should, Eames decided, appeal to a ten-year-old as well as a physicist; it should contain a ‘gut feeling’ about dimensions in time and space as well as a sound theoretical approach to those dimensions.”6

For more information: View All End Notes

Written by

Erin Malone

Erin Malone, Principal at Tangible ux, has over 20 years of experience leading design teams and developing web and software applications, social experiences and system-wide solutions. Prior to Tangible, she was at Yahoo! where she led the Platform User Experience Design team and was responsible for building the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library and for providing design expertise to the popular YUI (Yahoo! User Interface Library). Additionally, she led the redesign of the Yahoo! Developer Network, oversaw the redesign of Yahoo!’s Registration system, designed cross-network social solutions, developed the ux team’s Intranet and other cross-company initiatives. Before Yahoo!, she was a Design Director at AOL leading a range of community and personalization initiatives; Creative Director at AltaVista responsible for the AV Live portal and community tools and Chief Information Architect for Zip2 which produced a custom content management system for local city guides, entertainment guides, maps and yellow pages, including New York Today for the NYTimes. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Boxes and Arrows, a role she served for 5 years. She is the author of several articles on interaction design history and design management and a founding member of the IA Institute. Erin has a BFA in Communication Design from East Carolina University (1986), Greenville NC and an MFA in Information Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology (1994), Rochester NY. She is the author of the book Designing Social Interfaces with Christian Crumlish for O’Reilly Media and its related site designingsocialinterfaces.com.

2 thoughts on “Learning from the “Powers of Ten””

  1. It’s nice to see this appreciation of the Eameses and Powers of Ten. At the beginning of my career, I was fortunate enough to work there while the revised film was being made. In fact, I contributed one line to the script (“Out here, emptiness is normal”). As Lucia (Charles’ daughter from his first marriage) observes, the film is a model that can be informative in multiple ways: is it a film that uses the universe to tell about numbers? Or a film that uses numbers to tell about the universe? (Obviously, both.) While the 1977 version is more polished, I find Phil Morrison’s agitated volice-over less satisfying than Judith Bronowski’s “robot stewardess” delivery (as Paul Schrader called it) in the 1968 “Rough Sketch.”
    Working there, by the way, was just fabulous — I would have stayed forever, but Charles died while I was there, and after a year of struggle to make it work without him, Ray closed up shop. After cataloging everything and transferring the materials to the Library of Congress, Ray died ten years to the day after her husband.

  2. Thanks, Erin, for this loving dissection of what has always been a touchstone for me, ever since PBS burned it into my brain at the tender age of nine. Seeing it never fails to send me off into the characteristically-slackjawed posture of a human being in the throes of abject wonder

    I’m so glad you discuss the “Rough Sketch” version, since it’s always been fun for me to contrast it with the final product, and to speculate about why the Eames (“Eameses”? “Eameseses”?) made the decisions they did. Now I have some answers, and I’m grateful.

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