UB op-ed: It’s hip to be square

Market demands lead to video orientation changes
By: | Issue: April/May, 2019
April 11, 2019

Sean Brown, with years of experience in academic video production, is a consultant with Minneapolis-based Contegy Digital.

Square is the new landscape when it comes to video. The aspect ratio of the videos and pictures that you post is as accurate an indicator of your age as your driver’s license shows.

If you have never considered locking your iPhone in portrait mode, then you are equally likely to dismiss cuffed overalls, kombucha or Post Malone’s music. People who consider Gen Xers as their elders record video with a social media target in mind—such as the vertical orientation of Snapchat.

Mobile devices are increasingly used to capture video content. Our mobile devices, which once lagged behind professional video technology, are now introducing new ways to capture and display the moving image. Their network access, massive storage space and resolution have joined advanced filters, new approaches to depth of field, and methods of recording light and color that were previously only available in Kubrickian editing rooms.

The self-creation of content has created a cinéma vérité that is influenced by distribution and consumption. Social media platforms follow the demands of the feed and have banished the horizontal in favor of the vertical, and the landscape in favor of the square.

Changing orientation

Students today are both ardent fans of the current golden age of television and confident sailors on the seas of social media. They have composed, shot, cropped, filtered and published more photos and video clips by age 19 than the average Seinfeld devotee will in a lifetime.

Youth will primarily arrange video in the portrait aspect ratio by default as it is the format of Snapchat, but are equally comfortable viewing landscape and square formats.

The visual fluency of students places demands on the professionals responsible for designing the campus video systems of the future. The relationship among the moving image, associated text and efficient use of the surrounding space is disrupted by innovation and is overdue for reinvention.

The relationship among the moving image, associated text and efficient use of the surrounding space is disrupted by innovation and is overdue for reinvention.

Lecture capture has been a runaway success at creating academic video since 2002, but the marriage of professional audiovisual cameras and capture appliances produces petabytes of landscape-oriented video with tiny instructors surrounded by wasted landscape-video real estate.

As user-experience designers design next-generation video systems, they have to contend with the fact that a generation that grew up watching YouTube clips on a laptop screen or tablet is about to be replaced by students who first watched Paw Patrol (an animated kids show) on an iPhone.


Read: Should your university use SnapChat?


The YouTube app is an example of a modern video-viewing interface. When browsing website content via the app, your portrait-orientation lock is overridden, allowing video to stream vertically or horizontally, depending on how you hold your smartphone. The user design of the YouTube app handles controls, metadata and rotation in a way that informs the future of interfaces that want to show landscape video in an increasingly portrait world.

Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram’s live feature take different approaches to the needs of the feed and mobile, and to the preferences of the generation they are targeting.

Back to the future

The challenge of deciding the optimal shape for the moving images that we capture, publish and archive has been with us since Desi and Lucy famously decided that I Love Lucy should follow a new production technique: Film for the archive for cinema; crop and publish for television.

This prescient decision about the hottest show on TV influenced technology for a generation, and created the economic infrastructure that makes Netflix, YouTube and ventures such as the Khan Academy possible. Our preferences, observations and student-centric research on the shape of video will frame the next chapter of academic video.

Sean Brown, with years of experience in academic video production, is a consultant with Minneapolis-based Contegy Digital.


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