Powers of 10 – A Story of Inspiration

Powers of 10 – A Story of Inspiration

In 1999, we (Alicia and Peter) toured a special exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames at the Library of Congress – and found inspiration.  Though “Eames” is a well-known name in designer circles, and even in the general public with the recent renewed interest in Post-Modern design, this in-depth retrospective showed how Charles and Ray’s life was permeated by design.  Their partnership as a husband/wife team surely allowed them to not just practice design, but to live design.

We were particularly smitten with their short film, “Powers of Ten”, about the relationship of all things in the universe at various scales.  Though the film was made in 1977, its message holds firmly true today.  Watching it again, I wonder if it would have the same impact if produced today with the advanced technologies available…what do you think?

So, as we pondered on the mission of our own design lives together and began to formulate what became Workplace Strategies, the Powers of Ten became an analogy we often used.  Design is planning with a purpose, or problem-solving, and for people who practice design, it is critical to understand the problem at hand.  Therefore problem definition, or Problem Seeking, which is the title of the essential book, Problem Seeking: An Architectural Programming Primer by William M. Peña and Steven A. Parshall is the crucial starting point of a design project. And, as the Powers of Ten tells us, it is as important to understand at an “atomic” level as it is at a global level.  Said in a different way, to determine the appropriate amount of space needed for a project as a whole, we first need to determine the space needed for each portion, and to determine the space needed for a specific portion, we need to understand the functions, operations and so on.  By becoming more detailed, we can build a more accurate big picture.  The same concept applies to the qualitative properties as well as the quantitative properties of each project.

The Powers of Ten is the concept behind the concentric circles of the Workplace Strategies logo.

From the Eames Office website:

Powers of Ten is one of the Eameses’ best-known films.  Since it was produced in 1977 it has been seen by millions of people both nationally and internationally.  As with A Communication Primer and 2n (a 2-minute Peep Show from the exhibition, Mathematica), in this film, Charles and Ray employed the system of exponential powers to visualize the importance of scale.

When the Eameses came across the 1957 book by Kees Boeke, Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps, they decided to use it as the basis of a film investigating the relative size of things and the significance of adding a zero to any number.

Powers of Ten illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery. It begins with a close-up shot of a man sleeping near the lakeside in Chicago, viewed from one meter away.  The landscape steadily moves out until it reveals the edge of the known universe.  Then, at a rate of 10-to-the-tenth meters per second, the film takes us towards Earth again, continuing back to the sleeping man’s hand and eventually down to the level of a carbon atom. 

In 1998, Powers of Ten was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”