“The medium is the message.”
The way we think about a message is influenced more by the medium through which it is delivered than it is by the message itself. Consider a passage of scripture: Read from an old Bible with a well-worn leather cover, it conveys a sense of solemnity and gravitas. Delivered by an over-the-top televangelist immediately after a commercial break, however, and it may seem completely different. The message has not changed; only the medium.
That phrase, championed by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, rings as true today as they did when he first coined it almost five decades ago. Our media environment is more fragmented than ever: not only do we have radio and television and computers, but we have individual platforms within those contexts. The internet is a medium, sure, but so are the individual websites within – Facebook is a different medium than YouTube or Twitter. Each conveys a particular message, even if we discount any specific content.
So why are we talking about this? What does this have to do with us as designers?
We perceive information differently whether it’s delivered in Times New Roman or Franklin Gothic; what does that mean on the New York Times website? Or on WhiteHouse.gov? Is it possible to change public opinion just by changing a font? Or a color? If you think we can’t be manipulated by changes that subtle, consider that Google once tested over 41 shades of blue on a particular toolbar to determine which one resulted in the highest click-through rate, and found that there was indeed a clear winner.
We have the capacity to subtly influence the way people think, and that is both powerful and dangerous. It’s tough to remember this when mired in the minutiae of our jobs, but the ability to alter a person’s perception makes us enormously influential in their lives. The person who first created the “like” button for Facebook probably wasn’t thinking in these terms, but sure enough that button has become a ubiquitous part of our digital lives. Over 800 million people see or interact with that button on a regular basis, just as over 800 million people have had their definition of the word “friend” subtly and unconsciously altered to accommodate Facebook’s usage of it. I’m not saying these are good changes or bad changes, but they are changes, and that is something of which we must be cognizant.
As designers, we are obligated to tend to our small corners of the media environment. Let’s be good stewards of the influence entrusted to us. Think about the ways our work affects the people who use it, and build things that belong in the world we want to live in.
“The Medium is the Message” originated in Marshall McLuhan’s landmark book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, first published in 1964.
Many of the ideas presented in this essay are taken from Wilson Miner’s exceptional “When We Build” talk, which I encourage everyone to watch. Thank you, Mr. Miner, for helping to make our industry and the world a better place.