The pitch drop experiment has been going on for 86 years. It consists of a laboratory flask full of pitch (a tar-like polymer 230 billion times more viscous than water) with a hole in the bottom. The pitch slowly–and I mean sloooooooowly–flows through the hole. Scientists observe the properties of the flow over time, and hope to witness a “drop”: that is, the moment when a blob of pitch detaches from the flask and falls into a receptacle beneath it. It’s only happened eight times over those 86 years, and nobody has ever directly witnessed it. But thanks to the experiment’s stylish new website, “The Ninth Watch,” the whole Internet can participate in capturing this fleeting scientific observation.
If you’re not a nerd and you’ve never heard of the pitch drop, you might be thinking this sounds like the most boring thing ever. That’s why the science faculty at the University of Queensland in Australia, where the pitch drop experiment is run, asked Clemenger BBDO to design their website instead of fobbing the project off onto some underpaid graduate student. The result? Real science, marketed (yes, I said it) with the same style and care that automobile brands and potato chip makers routinely expect–and get.
“The project started as an open chat about what we could do to get the attention of international students,” says Bec McCall, digital art director of The Ninth Watch at Clemenger BBDO. “When the University of Queensland told us the ninth drop was due to fall this year and the unbelievable stories of the near misses, we knew we had found gold.”
The Ninth Watch isn’t overly flashy or even all that technically innovative. What it does have is class and cleverness: imaginative typography, an intriguing but not overbearing social-media component (the site invites you to “join” the Watch on Facebook, but you can skip it if you like), and a user experience that makes the experiment seem dramatic, immediate, and fascinating without being “sexed up.” A live webcam view of the pitch drop, complete with a ticking clock, fills the screen; a ticker displays how many other people are watching along with you; and other science-news headlines scroll enticingly across the bottom of the screen, offering something else to feed your brain with while you check in on the experiment.
In other words, it ain’t rocket science. It’s just designed with an approach other than complete indifference. And it wasn’t some pro bono job where BBDO took pity on the poor broke scientists, either–the faculty decided that investing actual money into an appealing presentation of their science was worthwhile. Why doesn’t this happen more often?
“Science communication feels like an untapped area,” McCall says. “Maybe there isn’t much of this kind of web design in the science field because people think it’s all a bit boring. But there can be a great story behind it, and in this case, boring can be awesome.”
I have another hypothesis (in addition to the plain fact that the funding mechanisms for scientific research don’t incentivize hiring big-gun creatives to promote it). The reason why science communication often suffers from design that’d make a RISD undergraduate puke isn’t just because the public is “bored” by default with science. I think it’s also because sometimes, some scientists and universities don’t think their work should need to be “marketed” the same way Fritos and Macs and Nikes are. It seems gauche. The unspoken attitude is: This is reality, this is knowledge–and if you need that to be ‘dressed up’ in order to get interested and understand, then you don’t deserve to be interested, or to understand.
You can split hairs about what constitutes “dressing something up,” but the bigger trouble with that stance is that it ignores reality. We might not want it to be the case that Frito-Lay and Apple and Nike compete for the same limited pool of cultural attention as stem-cell research and high-energy physics, but that is the case. The difference is that Frito-Lay, Apple, and Nike are actually in the game, playing to win like their lives depend on it. Sure, their job is to sell, and science’s isn’t–at least not explicitly. But you can’t sell without communicating, and you can’t communicate without attention and engagement. How do you attract attention and invite engagement? Design for it. You think anyone else out there is just dumping their message into an HTML template and crossing their fingers?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying CERN should hire Wieden + Kennedy to create a Superbowl commercial for the Large Hadron Collider. I’m just saying that indifferent design communicates nothing more clearly than indifference. Which of these public outreach sites looks like they might give a damn whether I’m paying attention or not: the LHC, or The Ninth Watch?
Here is why The Ninth Watch is an important piece of design. Not because a big ad agency did it, or because it’s a clever media stunt. It’s important because it was designed like someone gave a damn. And not just about the science or the facts–but about you and me. That’s where design starts. And you don’t need to be BBDO to do it.