2 min read

Are designers crazy? No, they "bump the lamp"

Are designers crazy? One developer asked that when reading a blog post about rescaling images for retina devices. He couldn’t see the difference between two images.

However, in the resulting Hacker News conversation, one commenter suggested that they were instead “bumping the lamp”, a term I’d never heard of but originated from the Disney film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”:

In the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” there’s a scene in a dark room where Roger Rabbit (an animated character) flies across the room, knocks a hanging lamp around, and the lighting becomes so dynamic that all the shadows move around including the animated character’s shadow. …

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EUPwsD64GI]

This was such a small detail that it would have been forgivable if the animators had left it out entirely: if they had not moved the lamp, kept the shadow steady, no one would have really noticed the difference. It would have been 100 times easier to animate and the effect wouldn’t really have been that different.

But they did it anyway. The term was later coined, and “bump the lamp” is used throughout Disney (and probably other organizations) to mean something akin to “go the extra mile”—but I see it as having a special significance to design.

You’re right, most people won’t notice. By that logic, you could cut corners a lot of other places too. You could be lax about button colors matching exactly, or per-pixel sharpness on the map and buttons. No one would probably notice.

But if you go for every detail like it was the most important detail, you have the possibility of reaching a level of design quality that is superlative, and some people will notice. Others will not notice directly, but will see that the piece exudes style and quality subconsciously, due to the attention to small details. If you carry this into other areas of your work—programming, customer service, market strategy, marketing, and more—then you have a chance to create something of true quality.

It’s a great phrase that sums up attention to detail (though other commenters rightly point out that sometimes attention to pixel perfect details can come at a cost of thinking about the bigger picture).

Another interesting point that came out of the commentss was that studies have shown that trained artists look at pictures in a different way to laymen, namely looking at everything rather than just the main features:

Vogt and Magnussen argue that it comes down to training: artists have learned to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately most salient to the perceptual system, which is naturally disposed to focusing on objects and faces.

And apparently even though laypeople may not be able to differentiate between good and bad typography, their mood will be affected nonetheless.