February 26, 2013, by Dion Dwityabaswara

Cartoon Style

Gangnam Style

Do you ever wonder why Gangnam Style is so popular? Some of you might have frowned in disgust to the statement. However that does not discount the fact that those of you who hate the song still actually have a reaction to it. In other words, something can be popularly good, popularly bad, or both. But regardless, that something is indeed popular.

So back to the first question, why did Gangnam Style, a song where most people hardly know the meaning of (well except those that speak Korean that is), become an international sensation so quickly?

I would argue the best reason for its success was the style.

Specifically, the cartoon style.

The song was, well, it was catchy.  And they hit home with the small English lyric part "…sexy ladeeh…," but the emphasis is on the presentation style of the singer Psy and his minions. People don’t care much about the song itself, but the character and the dance... the image… is something else. We still don't quite understand exactly what the song is all about, but for some reason it makes us "understand," and therefore, "enjoy" (or hate).  Wouldn't you agree?

One of my favorite writers (or I should say comic artist) Scott McCloud summed it up quite nicely in his book "Understanding Comics" (Harper Perennial, 1994, p30):


The seemingly crude and random direction of the music video is, arguably, a meticulously composed and carefully choreographed work of "cartoon" art. The colorful characters, the "suspended in the air" moves, the outfit (the round face, big sun glasses), the literal cartoon ending, etc., all are pretty well put together in a cartoonish way to amplify its message; it hooks you the very first second. You may continue to like it, or swear to never see that music video again; but most of us got hooked to watching the entire video at least for the first time. It’s like a mind trap and 1.3 billion people on youtube confirm the addiction.  Now why do we even care about this at all?

It shows us the strength of the "cartoon style."

Some people might be put off by the word "cartoon" thinking that it is an inferior style in comparison to the breadth of detail and realism of a megalo-super-photo-realistic rendering style. In the past, when computers were not as powerful, architects and designers relied on their "cartoon style" aka their natural artistry to convey their ideas.  But that could take too much time and effort and could be inaccurate with each design iteration.   Computers actually spoiled us.  They made the visualization part of the design process easier and way more accurate.  Almost too accurate.  I can’t say computers have failed to do great presentations; but for some of us, we have fantasies of going back to the cartoon style, but while maintaining our reliance on the latest technologies.

With a more realistic style, almost everything can be simulated and calculated to excellent accuracy. Not the case with cartoon style. In cartoon style, the emphasis is on the meaning, which is quite a topic by itself.  Without a proper concept for the "meaning," or I should say "essence," it is difficult to achieve a good cartoon style presentation. Then, an artist needs to translate it into meaningful, beautiful, iconic shapes, collages or composition (note: cartoon does not always have to be in the form of line art).

Let’s say a building has the emphasis on the design of the curved roof above the vestibule. The architect wants to emphasize this design element, instead of the not-so-important arrangement of windows on right or left side of the entrance. This will translate to a different kind of artistic interpretation, compared to if the point of interest is on something else. The key benchmark would be whether the audience can capture that essence.  The specific details of the design aren't as important as the intent and sometimes a more accurate visualization gets in the way.

For me it is a never ending challenge.  Balancing the ever increasing abilities that technologies bring us with the basic simplicities that sometimes are needed to communicate designs.  Along with the success of Psy's Gangnam Style, my curiosity of achieving a better cartoon style presentation, is killing me slowly, with his song.

Wish me luck folks. Thanks for reading.