THE LITTLE MAN

Friday, September 19th, 2008

The Little Man: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Rating System

Yesterday I read this little paragraph in Roger Ebert’s response to claims that he gives out too many stars:

The only rating system that makes any sense is the Little Man of the San Franciscio Chronicle, who is seen (1) jumping out of his seat and applauding wildly; (2) sitting up happily and applauding; (3) sitting attentively; (4) asleep in his seat; or (5) gone from his seat….The blessing of the Little Man system is that it offers a true middle position, like three on a five-star scale.

So I did a little research. The Little Man was the creation of Chronicle artist Warren Goodrich in the early 40s:

On the occasion of the Little Man’s 50th birthday, Goodrich recalled it was just another assignment that he dashed off quickly, noting, “I’m surprised (it) continued.”…Goodrich, who died last year, once recalled that a woman (possibly a disgruntled actress) once hit him on the head with her umbrella and said, “I hate the Little Man!”

The woman isn’t alone. Many of the writers at the Chronicle hate The Little Man. They boo-hoo that the picture already tells the story!

The beloved icon of this newspaper’s entertainment sections is, in fact, a complete nuisance to criticism….That’s because the Little Man gives you a visual clue to what you’re about to read.

And they complain about what Ebert loves: the middle man on the scale—the man with ambiguous feelings.

[T]he message is often unclear…when he’s merely sitting in his chair, watching. Not clapping. Not jumping out of his seat and clapping. Not slumped in his seat. Not out of his seat. Just sitting there.

I suppose a comment could be made here about how people can’t handle ambiguity in their lives: they want things to be black and white, with no shades of grey. As Ebert quotes Siskel,

“What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up–yes. Thumbs down–no.”

In fact, the editorial staff was so bothered by the neutral middle man that they had him redesigned:

Few are aware that the L.M. was retrofitted about 10 years ago with a more benign expression. The Little Man pose in between the politely applauding and the snoozing Little Man was redesigned in a microscopic makeover: the “alert viewer” Little Man’s expressionless mouth was tweaked with a slight upturned curve, to indicate a hint of a Mona Lisa smile, suggesting a vague amusement. His raised eyebrows indicate interest but not quite approval, denoting mixed feelings. After artistic spinal fusion, he also sat up more alertly, signifying a mixed review.

All of this came after Talmudic editorial discussions about the meaning of the enigmatic No. 3 Little Man: Did his indecipherable gaze indicate intrigue or ennui? Polite diffidence or glazed-eyed apathy? As a Datebook editor noted, “He’s the middle child, and the most unmanageable.”

the little man

I say: 3 on a 1 out of 5 scale should be ambiguous and neutral. Instead, he’s upright as if he’s engaged and smiling, as if he’s liking it. His back should be against the chair:

the little man redesign

And to be totally ambiguous, his mouth should be a straight line (or no line at all), with no eyebrows. A blank face:

the little man

An ambiguous visual calls for explanatory text! And so, the neutral man is a friend to the good critic: if the visual is ambiguous, then the reader should be more tempted to investigate the article text to get the writer’s take!

the little man - the new lineup

Note: this was a repost from my tumblelog. Apologies for doubling up.




11 Comments on “THE LITTLE MAN”

  1. Annie in Austin Says:

    I kind of like the Little Man myself – and agree he should be sitting back with a neutral face, but maybe he could also have one leg crossed and resting on the opposite knee? So he’s not planning to leave, but is braced against tipping sideways if boredom makes him sleepy.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  2. Dana from New York Says:

    I agree completely with the version of the neutral man with the blank face and his back against the chair, in fact, I was thinking that’s how he should be while I was reading the beginning of the article. However it would be a near-PERFECT system if in between neutral man and clapping man there was that straight-backed, alert, mona lisa smile guy. So, it’d be a six point rating system and what’s the problem with that? Mona Lisa man is, let’s say, in Ebert’s star-system, a 3.5 perhaps.

  3. Tom Says:

    Thanks for the informative post, and I definitely agree with Dana on adding the ‘other’ middle man. I would give this post, between the alert attentive middle man and the clapping one, or a 4.5 out of 6. Where did you get the images?

  4. Austin Kleon Says:

    Annie: that’s always the tough question when designing symbols and icons. “How much detail do you put in?”

    Dana & Tom: Hmmm…I totally disagree! I think you need an odd-numbered scale to give you that middle number that’s neither good nor bad.

    I got the images, btw, from the San Francisco Chronicle’s site.

  5. Dana from New York Says:

    ha, I hear you. that smiling dude just seems out of place. maybe we can up it to seven.

  6. On Thumbs, Stars, and Little Men | IdealFusion Consulting Says:

    […] the yardstick by which he generates the “stars,” “thumbs,” or “Little Man” of his reviews, it would go a long way toward educating readers; as well as, I’d […]

  7. On Thumbs, Stars, and Little Men - Untrue Media Says:

    […] the yardstick by which he generates the “stars,” “thumbs,” or “Little Man” of his reviews, it would go a long way toward educating readers; as well as, I’d […]

  8. James van Maanen Says:

    Well, you caint please ‘em all. Or, really, much of anyone. I think the “little man” is certainly better than any “star” system I’ve yet seen. But as to the little fellow’s position and facial expression, readers/writers should remember that this is the way that THEY see it: straight back, Mona Lisa smile (Jesus: folk have debating that one for centuries without ever reaching consensus!) Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t correct. But so are those who see it differently. That’s why I refuse to use a rating on my blog. Read me — and figure it out for yourself.

  9. The Road — Taken | All In One Boat Says:

    […] Little Man is sitting up and watching intently but not applauding, at least until the credits […]

  10. Oh, hai. « OH NO JO Says:

    […] this day, my favorite review tool/ranking system is The Little Man in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Do I like it because as an artist, it provides me visual […]

  11. Kris Frost Says:

    Many years ago, I purchased a pink t-shirt with the little movie review man on it. The shirt had him in 3 or 4 stages of ‘rating’s Is it possible to buy these shirts today ?

    Thank You,

    Kris Frost

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