FLAK

[Brad Paley][] and [Edward Tufte][] are both fond of turning to past work in order to understand how to do better work in the present. Tufts is probably better known, but I actually had the chance to meet Paley and to talk with him, and he is a generous, insightful individual. Like them, I like to explore design work from the past to see what it can teach us in the present about communicating effectively and eloquently.

Case in point is this Army Air Force film entitled simply _FLAK_ (1944, T.F. I-3389), which you can watch for yourself on [Youtube][] — and it’s probably available at the Internet Archive, if you look for it. The term is itself from the German abbreviation of *Flugzeugabwehrkanone* [air defense cannon], and reveals, perhaps that it was the preferred term over *Ack-Ack* which was the British term for *anti-aircraft* defenses. The film itself, like others from this era, is a master-class in what you can do with limited resources, both in terms of time and money, and when your need to communicate is urgent: in this case the film is addressed to air crews who are, perhaps, not keen to follow proscribed course and altitude changes or who want to make changes but are told not to. I can only imagine how terrifying flak was to experience while bouncing around inside one of those bombers, and any film would have to overcome that fear.

There is probably a much longer post for the visualizations included in the film, and in others like it, and none of them will be well served by stills, but here is at least one example that, I hope, captures the spirit of the visuals used:

Sti

The still comes from a moment in the film where the narration has explained how long it takes for air defenses to acquire a target, establishing its course and altitude; predict its course; communicate that prediction as firing directions to associated batteries; and for the batteries to fire and the shells to reach the targeted area and explode. It was something like 35 seconds in 1944. The recommendation was to make course changes about one second for every 1000 feet of altitude, and the segment that follows explains why simply short zig-zags are actually dangerous — because they can so easily be normalized.

The lines and graphics unfold across maps and landscapes in ways that make complete sense and allow viewers to “see” for themselves the way things work.

[Brad Paley]: http://wbpaley.com/brad/
[Edward Tufte]: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/
[Youtube]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIYVwqHM488

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