Looking Around

Robert Mills

Last night I went to watch The Phantom of the Opera on stage. It was a stunning show that was incredibly well adapted for my local theatre in Cardiff, having moved from its home in London to embark on a UK tour. The reason why the show is such a brilliant experience, aside from the talented cast, is because every tiny detail has been considered in relation to storytelling and the audience. It was only when I was pondering this after the final curtain fell, that I started to think about web design.

I’m not a designer or developer. My place in the industry is in relation to content, storytelling and audiences. I like to deconstruct websites in the same way I used to films and other texts as a media studies student and later, a journalism and media graduate. I get excited by all the elements that make up the final show/film/product/site. As professionals who work in the web, we have so many choices to make, all of which impact on the final experience for the user.

Back to the theatre. Here’s a scene from the London version of The Phantom of the Opera:

You can see how dramatic and beautiful this staging is. In fact the sets and the transitions between them, were the best I have ever seen in a live show. I couldn’t stop looking around and taking it all in. Clearly those involved in this production have a real passion for what they do. The above works incredibly well as a ‘whole’, but to achieve that final composition there have been many decisions made regarding staging, lighting, costume, props, sound, and special effects. Each of those decisions would have been made with the fourth wall in mind, the audience.


As I was thinking about this it reminded me of a term that is constantly used when you study the media academically, mise-en-scène. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia, a large one at that:

Mise-en-scène (“placing on stage”) is an expression used to describe the design aspects of a theatre or film production, which essentially means “visual theme” or “telling a story“—both in visually artful ways through storyboarding, cinematography and stage design, and in poetically artful ways through direction. Mise-en-scène has been called film criticism’s “grand undefined term”.

When applied to the cinema, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. The “mise-en-scène”, along with the cinematography and editing of a film, influence the verisimilitude of a film in the eyes of its viewers

This is essentially what Designing the Invisible is about. All of the individual elements of a website that come together to tell a coherent story to a clearly identified audience.  We do what we do day in day out and sometimes it is too easy to get lost in the process. That’s why it was nice spending time away from the screen and being inspired by a very different medium. We can learn lots from other media forms and from our surroundings.

The best thing we can do is pay attention to the little things. We can design the invisible, think of the audience and make sure everything we commit to screen, the mise-en-scène perhaps, is the right story for the right people. Bringing everything together.

The worst thing we can do is stop looking at the world around us.