Considering shelf life and media choice

When I started reading The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, I knew I would be entertained as well as educated by author and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The book explains at the history of Pluto and the space bits that our scientists are continually trying to better understand—and classify. About half way through the book, I was charmed to learn about the exhibition design of the new (at least as of Feb 19, 2000) Hayden Planetarium, and a lesson it can share with web content design.

Shelf life in the Hayden Planetarium exhibit

Tyson explains how the “shelf life” of a subject “determined the nature of the exhibit treatment it received—which is code for how much money we spend to create the exhibit.” He explains that in order “to plan content” they first had to determine where within three tiers a bit of information fit. He gives an example of the first tier:

[E]ver since Copernicus, we’ve been convinced that Earth goes around the Sun and not the other way around. That would be content of long shelf life that we can boldly cut into metal displays.

He goes on to explain that “the question of water on Mars” fits into the moderate shelf life, and that the text and images explaining it would be presented on “replaceable rear-lit transparencies.” The final category includes new discoveries or hypotheses that are yet to be verified (or trashed):

For that we simply show videos of research scientist giving their latest ideas. No transparencies. No cut metal. Just swappable video content.

You can just imagine a well-spoken scientist easily explaining a new discovery directly into the videographer’s camera, and the technician strolling over to the exhibition to plop a new tape into the VCR hidden behind the exhibition display. With that, Tyson concludes his quick overview of the Hayden Planetarium’s exhibition design. It breaks down simply:

  1. Long shelf life — cut metal
  2. Moderate shelf life — rear-lit transparencies
  3. Short shelf life — video

This idea of shelf life seems just as relevant to the web as it does to exhibition design, but the choice and approach to materials is rather different.

Consider shelf life in your content strategy

The beauty in the Hayden approach to choosing media is it decreases both the creation speed and cost of the medium as the shelf life decreases. We can apply the same vein of thinking that the Hayden planners did, even if our results are different.

Generally, a video on the web has to be rather fancier than those in museum displays—they need good cinematography and perhaps a soundtrack—so, we use it for the content that has the longest shelf life. Other web-friendly media then fill in the other two tiers:

  1. Long shelf life — video or an app
  2. Moderate shelf life — image galleries or formal articles
  3. Short shelf life — blog post or a tweet

By considering the shelf life of your content to guide the treatment of it, you will be more likely to dedicate time, money, and effort to the projects that will be relevant for a period of time proportional to the effort invested in them. Don’t just make a video because YouTube is the hip way to do things these days. Consider your content and its shelf life before determining its media.

All quotations taken from pg 63-64 of The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson


About Veronica Erb

Designs, researches, illustrates, and writes code. Plays ukulele. Dances Balboa. Grew up in a geodesic dome, and hasn't gotten over it.
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