Life in five seconds

There are many ways to shrink a narrative. There’s the 280-character tweet. To sell an idea in Silicon Valley there’s the 1-minute elevator pitch. There’s the six-word story format, allegedly launched by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet. But the one that may beat them all for brevity? Shortology: it’s a whole life, in just five seconds.

Or a film. Shortology is a concept, and a graphical technique for storytelling, invented by Matteo Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi of Milan creative agency H-57. The idea is to tell a complete story with, as they say in the introduction to one of their books, “the useless and boring parts stripped away”. And to tell a story not in words, but in pictograms – the kind familiar to anyone who’s ever used a public toilet.

It all started with Michael Jackson. As Civaschi explained in an interview at Wired Next Fest, a friend had asked him for some graphics to contribute to a blog on creativity. Civaschi said he would have to think about it. And then came the aha moment:

“I was in a bar reading an article in a magazine about Michael Jackson that talked about the fact that he wanted to be whiter than he was naturally. I was sitting across from the toilets in the bar, and I saw the little man, the classic graphic that you see everywhere, and I thought, why not tell this story using this man?”

Civaschi’s “biography” of Michael Jackson is a sequence of just four little toilet-sign men: the first is black, the second and third each a bit lighter, and the fourth is white and horizontal – dead. It quickly went viral, and its success encouraged the creators to produce legions of others, all based on the Shortology philosophy that any story could be boiled down to a few iconic, ironic, images. The sequences can be read and understood in just five seconds, though many are puzzles that require more concentration. Deciphering them brings the joy of recognition, the pleasure of passing from simple pictograms to a whole narrative tissue: life, in short.

Their first book, Life in Five Seconds: The Short Story of Absolutely Everything spawned a second focused on the movies: Film in Five Seconds. As Civaschi said in the Wired interview, “The most fertile terrain for Shortology is definitely cinema.”

Most films last between 100 and 150 minutes. But Shortology conveys the nub of a story in just a few pictograms. From Titanic, to Jurassic Park, to Pulp Fiction, Shortology can help you relive your favourite moments in film – or simply get the gist without taking time out of your life to see them. Of course, as film buffs everywhere would argue, there are many pleasures to be gained from committing to the whole film, rather than just trying to “get to the point”. But Shortology, using a universal visual language to shrink any narrative, affords unique pleasures itself, and proves that sometimes even the most revered storytelling media – like film – can benefit from a redesign.


Shortology H-57, Rizzoli, 2012