Revisiting Powers of Ten

Perfection is a lot of little things done right

The first time I viewed Powers of Ten by the Eames’ I thought, “Oh wow, that’s nifty,” and promptly closed the browser tab. But recently I’ve come to realize it has lessons to teach us about the nature of complexity and thus how we approach the world.

I’m a big believer in the idea that things have to hit us at the right time – right state of mind, right recent experiences – to deliver meaning. It’s why I can pick up a book in high school and hate it (math of any kind), but pick that same book up 10 years later and love it.

Powers of Ten ‘round again at a time when I began to see complexity as a simplicity multiplied. In the film, the Eames’ zoom way out, to the planets, and way in, to molecules, showing how the largest things are made of the smallest. Cars are the same way. Complexity when viewed as a whole, but really just tons of simple machines intwined. Programming eventually breaks down to simple on/off binary.

Because of this tendency of complexity we can see butterfly effects. Jason Santa Maria describes just such a thing in the beginning of his “On Web Typography” (where I was reminded of this video). Small changes to the contrast of a part of the text or column width cause waves throughout the design.

It’s also a powerful principle for making things happen. Every day that I visit the gym I’m moving a large stone a very small distance. Every time I learn how to make a small piece of my design work better, I improve the whole.

“Good job copernicus,” you say, “Way to discover hard work gets results.” Sure it’s cliche, but then cliches are cliche for a reason. And I find inspiration in the fact that when I get scared of where to start understanding new things there is a way to look smaller and start playing.