Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chong's Law and Hierarchy

The Air and Space Smithsonian magazine article on the Northrop Grumman Display Model Shop (where I work) just came out in their September 2009 issue (http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/Martial-Arts.html). There is a nice photo of me surrounded by some of our models. There is also in the article a reference to "Chong's Hierarchy" and a partial description of what it contains. For the record, here is the official unveiling of the full version of:

Chong's Law and Hierarchy of Visceral Impact

Assuming all things to be equal in subject and quality:

The more complex and tactile the presentation, the more visceral its impact will be on the viewer.

1) A 3-view line drawing has more impact than a verbal or written description.

2) A black & white drawing or photo has more impact than a 3-view line drawing.

3) A color photo or computer rendering has more impact than a black & white drawing or photo.

4) A painting has more impact than a color photo or computer rendering.

5) A desk-top display model has more impact than a painting.

6) A floor-stand display model has more impact than a desk-top display model.

7) A full-sized mock-up has more impact than a floor-stand display model.

8) A real vehicle on static display has more impact than a full-sized mock-up.

9) A real vehicle in dynamic motion has more impact than a real vehicle on static display.

'm sure many of you are wondering why I bothered. It does seem fairly obvious in retrospect, but what got me thinking about the law and hierarchy was the observation that most people don't know why they respond the way they do the different levels of presentation. Since I had to articulate why the models we make have the impact they do, I had to figure out the reasons behind that impact. My conclusion: the more the five senses are engaged, the more memorable the experience will be to that person; the more visceral the impact it will have.

Unlike drawings or photos, models are tactile by nature. They engage not only the sense of sight, but touch. They are like people magnets, because everyone from the littlest kid to the oldest adult wants to pick them up. They want to feel them, to caress them, and yes, to play with them. Part of the joy of model making is the experience of getting to know the shape of the airplane (or car, or ship) you are working on. The very act of sanding makes the modeler intimately aware of every curve and contour of their project. It is a very sensory and sensual experience and is one of the most successful ways to capture the attention of participant and viewer alike. It makes the most impression at the fraction of the cost of the real thing - and it can fit on a desk top, too. Life-long passions for a particular vehicle are formed by this simple act.

It's one of the reasons cars, ships and airplanes are so anthropomorphized by their makers and owners. Most people don't name their washing machines. But many people name their cars, while ships and planes are called "she." The act of building those vehicles or waxing them down or riding in them engages more senses than most anything else and the passions they arouse are legendary. Grown men wept at the cancellation of the YF-23 (the photo above) because they spent several years creating her and watching her fly in the high desert at Edwards Air Force Base. The plane became alive, and when we lost, it felt like we lost a member of our own family. I felt that way and I only built models of the YF-23. The people who really worked on the project felt even worse. And so it is with most every aircraft program and ship I've heard of.

Perhaps the clearest example I can present of the Hierarchy is what happened at the recent 50th anniversary celebration of the T-38 Talon's first flight. The ceremony was held at the El Segundo facility. We had speakers talking about the airplane, we had posters with T-38 black and white art being given away, one of our models was in a nearby room for the VIP luncheon, and the podium was in front of an actual T-38 that was recently returned to Northrop Grumman for preservation and display. Of course, the full-size airplane got the most attention - that is until the flyover by another T-38 drew every eye into the sky and electrified the crowd. Why? Because it was something we as a company built and it was alive; and we could feel it! All other representations of her paled in comparison.

The Hierarchy is real. Remember: you read it here first. :-)

The photo of the second YF-23 Black Widow II, PAV-2 "Spider," was shot at the 2002 Hawthorne Air Faire at Hawthorne Municipal Airport, Jack Northrop Field, CA.


  1. Mike asked me to post this for him as he couldn't get it to take:
    "Beautifully written, and right on target! Aviation artists, although working in only two dimensions, go through a very similar process of "learning the curves" while executing detail drawings of the aircraft we paint. One very well-known artist insists on slowly running his hand over every reachable surface and contour of an airplane he is going to paint to better sense the subtleties of the 3-dimensional structure to be depicted. (His wife once commented she was just glad he didn't paint pictures of women!) Terrific article in AIR and SPACE incidentally."
    Mike Machat

  2. It's too bad you can't argue your hierarchy with Orson Wells, who insisted that the development of technicolor ruined the movies. (He never shot his own projects in color; the producers of "Moonlighting" even enticed him to film one of their episodes by promising him he could do a sequence in B+W.) (In my opinion, the meeting of John Dillanger with the infamous "woman in red" loses something without the visceral scarlet hue.)
    I, myself had this same argument (about the hierarchy of art, and the impact of words over pictures) with Betty Butts, (a well known sculptress whose best work resides in the Indian Museum near...Fort Dixon(?) Somewhere around Oklahoma I think.)
    Betty's heirarchy of art goes like this:
    Music is the purest art form, then Dance, Sculpture/carving, (models and mobiles included) [one NEVER confused sculpture with carving in Betty's presence], then mosaics and stained glass and collage, then painting, then sketches, then poetry, then prose. (Of course, as a novelist, I disagreed.) (I don't know where she placed movies as a whole, if she even considered them art --she did not consider either comic books or crafts (whether knitting or candle sculpture or even graphic art renderings for ads and commercials) to be art.)

  3. Thanks for posting this alongside your shot of the YF-23. Here's a corollary for you based on your picture.

    The more abstract the picture, the less viseral the reaction but the more cerebral. We react viserally because we emphasize physically with an object. When the view of the object becomes more abstracted, we switch to a different part of our brains to appreciate it. At a guess, some part of the left side of the brain lights up for a viseral impact while the right side lights up for an artistic impact. That's not to say one impact is more or less intense than the other, but they do engage the viewer differently.