Personal Parables #13

The Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 7, Bart vs. Thanksgiving. The bit in The Silverdome, when the announcer points out the uselessness of camera flashes in the crowd.

I searched for this episode and clip for years, remembering only that there were camera flashes in a stadium and that the announcer referenced the camera flashes. Finally I came across the Simpsons Archive Episode Guide and started searching for ‘flash’ in the scrips, season by season. Thankfully it was only in season two so didn’t take long. Next, for the gif above, I used frinkiac.com. Too much detail here perhaps, but this Personal Parable has come to my mind so many times over the years that finding the actual reference feels like exorcising a demon of some sort! Back to the point.

The comment comes from a halftime show announcer at a Thanksgiving Day football game, and is a classic quick throw away Simpsons joke, like all the ones involving maths, but this one is about physics, user experience, with a tad of Dunning–Kruger effect for good measure:

”In the Silverdome, now ablaze with flashbulbs, as ‘Hooray for Everything’ leaves the field! Of course, a stadium is much too big for flash pictures to work, but nobody seems to care!” Announcer for the halftime show

The joke, if you never studied photography, or like other normal people, never gave much thought to how cameras and flashes work, is about how camera flashes are only useful at distances of a few meters. Maybe more if they’re powerful. But at the range of a stadium seat to the centre of a stadium, a camera flash is utterly useless. If anything, it will actually make your photo worse, as along with the flash, your camera will use a faster shutter speed, and lessen your chances of getting a good long distance exposure.

In short, it is pointless to use a camera flash in a stadium, yet how familiar and in our culture is that idea of seeing thousands of flashes firing off around an arena or in front of a stage, each flash effectively a hand in the air for “I don’t know how my camera works and no! Of course I never read the instructions”. More things in the world are like this than designers accept I think. From website forms to phone interfaces to central heating systems to voting. Assuming people understand what you understand is the first worst step to take as a designer of anything.