Media forms

The focus of the graphic designer is too often on production, creation and interpretation of meaning and not enough on the interface through which the design is presented to the world. In the first module we have already started to describe this as a complex world where readership, maybe, has a primary role as interpreter of meaning. Media have a role to play in this presentation. In most cases, media precedes the design that is placed in it. The media decides the format, the materials of presentation, the technical scope and limitation (these physical factors are often the only ones the graphic designer considers relevant to their production), not to mention the broadcast breadth, class of consumption and media tradition and history to which the particular media form belongs. Viewed from this perspective, media forms may well be more determinant of the form of their content than of their ever-changing text and image subject matter.

The usual way that graphic designers encounter media is through history. In graphic design courses, art and design history is usually an essential part of their training. Courses vary, but history is necessarily chronological and we should all be aware of some of the order of the development of media. This is a history wedded to a history of technology, because most media are dependent upon technological development (or the lack of it) that has created the conditions for its existence. So in this sense, media are the designers’ interface with technology and technological change.

The importance of media therefore has only started to be acknowledged fairly recently, but for graphic designers, this acknowledgement is urgent because the development of media forms is integral to the understanding of our sign production. In ‘Means of Communication as Means of Production’, Raymond Williams describes three ideological blocks often made to the acknowledgement of the importance of communications (media).

‘First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of production, are seen only as ‘media’: devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ and ‘receivers’…

Then second, in a more plausible attempt to recognize some means of communication as means of production, there is the now commonplace distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘technological’ means of communication: the former characterized, and then usually neglected as ‘ordinary, everyday language’, in ‘face to face’ situations; the latter grouped around developed mechanical and electronic communication devices and then generalized – with an especially noticeable ideological shift from technical means to abstracted social relationships – as ‘mass communication’…theoretically inadmissible for two reasons…because the separation of ‘mass communications’ from ‘ordinary everyday language’ practice conceals the fact that ‘mass communication’ processes include, in most cases necessarily, forms of ‘ordinary, everyday language’ use…[and]…because the grouping of all or most mechanical and electronic means as ‘mass communications’ conceals…the variable relations between the specific communicative relationships and other forms of social relationship…

…third, an ideological position which…rests on an abstract a priori separation of means of communication from means of production. It is related, first, to the specialized use of the term ‘production’ as if its only forms were either capitalist production – that is the production of commodities, or more general 'market' production, in which all that is ever produced takes the form of isolable and disposable objects. Within Marxism…in which the inherent role of means of communication in every form of production …becomes a second-order or second-stage process, entered into only after the decisive productive and social-material relationships have been established." (Williams 1982:50-53)

Graphic design teaching and often designers’ self-image has tended to suffer from a limited, even deformed, view of media in each of these ways. The message and form of the message has generally been concentrated on to the neglect of the media ‘carrier’. Graphic design is often understood in a socially detached way, being seen for itself and not as a product that relates to the wider society. The production of graphic design for the mass market is also almost totally neglected in design theory and training because it doesn’t 'measure up' to ‘refined’ or ‘approved’ standards of design quality. Lastly, graphic design is most usually seen as being a professional and formal activity and so the unofficial and informal are largely ignored and forgotten. Our understanding of media therefore is fundamental to the comprehension of graphic design as a global language.

Learning Activity 3.1


Go to the conference area of the Webboard and see if we can get a discussion going on the topic of media form.

McLuhan and the socio-historical role of media

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian English Professor who, in the 1960s, became a household name as a technological determinist and prophet of the new electronic age. McLuhan’s take on the media was to see media extensions as sensory extensions that might restrict or enable man’s interaction with each other and the world. He started with oral society relatively unaided by technological invention and built up an inventory of sensory extensions; so the book becomes an extension of the eye, the train is an extension of the foot that allows a more restricted experience of the world than does the car (which is necessarily more private and individual, by virtue of being under individual control).

By describing media extensions as sensory extensions, McLuhan relates media to human experience and sees them as being essential ‘shapers’ of the human psyche; more or less providing the scope and type of experience possible through their facilitation and in the end determining the quality of experience and input far more than the content carried by the media itself. Viewed in this way, all media are influential, but some of them tend to have greater influence than others – especially when they act in concert with other medias – as has happened in the electronic age.

Because McLuhan wrote in the sixties he anticipated social and psychic changes that had not even occurred yet. McLuhan developed his theorizing on the strength of television, which he found a profoundly influential and moulding medium that he saw as counteracting the fragmentation and specialization of interests that had been caused by a print and eye dominated culture of the past 500 years. Here was a new medium that was offering continuous, multi-choice, non-sequential, simultaneous information that was challenging the old structure of information delivery. McLuhan found this challenge exciting, politically and conceptually challenging to the then more structured and ordered way of thinking about the world and its media.

For McLuhan, the driving force of history is media. Media change is technologically driven and essentially an invention of man. And so mankind changes through the development or mutation of his and her sensory extensions. McLuhan places these in two main categories, which he calls cool and hot. Hot media are characterized by narrow and restricted sensory extensions – the book and radio are classic hot media because they entertain only one of our senses at a time. Television, on the other hand, is cool because it delivers its information through two senses and also has a degree of control over programming, volume and viewing conditions. McLuhan provided a whole new set of criteria for assessing and understanding media – one most akin to PROCESS. McLuhan’s media have to be understood as a type of delivery and he claimed that this was what was most important about the media itself, much more significant than its content.

Think about the role of graphic design in media. Graphic design relates to both content and media form and yet, strictly speaking, it is neither. Take the newspaper for example. The graphic design of the newspaper has developed to become uniquely adapted to a special type of reader behaviour. The newspaper grew out of the book form, and at first the book was its model, but as newspapers became more frequent, larger in format and bigger in content, the reader needed much more direction than the book format could ever provide. The newspaper developed a new mosaic form of graphic delivery and, in the process, demanded a totally different form of readership behaviour to the book. You were no longer expected to read all the content. Interest, rather than ordered structure, was what propelled you through the pages. New systems of hierarchy had to be invented. And so McLuhan argued the form of each media changed people far more than did the content they searched for in it.

Learning Activity 3.2


Let’s go back to the conference area of the WebBoard and reassess our views on media in the light of McLuhan.

Design for different media forms

The term media form comes out of the writing of Raymond Williams, especially in relation to television. Raymond Williams had an academic background in drama but he became one of the first and leading cultural studies theorists with a special interest in the development of media and communications. In relation to television, Williams put forward the dictum that the new media have an appetite for swallowing and regurgitating the forms and content of the media that have gone before. In the context of television you might identify the talent quest, the Master of Ceremonies, the party game, the stage play or musical all being plundered as ideas for content. So a lot of media content is recycled and not original, and we should remember this observation when we consider graphic design.

Marshall McLuhan, in the context of his media theory, made a similar observation about media content but overall, McLuhan is more interested in understanding media as process and therefore in understanding each media form as containing uniquely different media processes. In The Medium is the Massage McLuhan demonstrates especially the difference between oral, print and electronic media. From your point of view, try and understand the way the different media forms process us through using them (through their particular media forms) and their relevance to graphic design.

Generally speaking the graphic designer works within an inherited media environment. We are talking about a vast output here, one that is local, national and international in scope and influence. To hope to change or influence media forms is something most of us only dream of. There are myths we might believe or accept regarding our relationship to the media, but, generally speaking, we are subservient to its forms and traditions.

When we start to consider the media from a reader/user perspective (rather than that of the graphic designer or sign-producer), then we can start to understand the structure and process of media forms even more. Graphic designers are sign-producers, but we are also media users and as such should be able to understand the media we work in from both perspectives. It is here that you might have to distinguish between media. Some, like the brochure, are informally structured in that they are part of only a small series or house style. Books can sometimes fit into this category. Other media, such as the newspaper and magazine, however, are part of a series with incredibly strong and relatively inflexible traditions; and this is especially so in the case of graphic design. Think of what is continuous in a commercial magazine. Content, such as text and photography, changes constantly, but while design might change in its detail to accommodate content change (different text and images and subject matter), essentially it must remain constant to the style and code of presentation. To alter the presentation code would alienate readers and give the impression of a change of character.

None of the above paragraph is meant to imply that media do not change or that media change is impossible. One of the most noticeable aspects of contemporary commercial media especially is that they are constantly changing, but if you analyze the different elements of the media, you will see that some aspects change more profoundly than others. Think about a genre of magazine. Magazines service specific interest groups. Subject matter must follow certain expected themes, but content must always vary so as not to get boring. If content wandered off theme, however, it would be seen to be irrelevant. Generally speaking these rules apply to text and images. Magazine design however must remain much more constant because of its general identity-giving properties that it gives to the publication. To change character quickly would be to lose the identification of the reader. This is why constant gradual change is the preferred practice of most publishers, as it keeps the consumer continually responsive but not developing expectations outside the code currently on offer. The art directorships of Neville Brody at The Face in the 80s and Carson at Beach Culture and Raygun in the 90s really stand out precisely because of the radical nature of their invention.

Learning Activity 3.3

team building a template of change

Using the discussion board, start to accumulate historical and contemporary visual material and facts that illustrate the development of media forms in terms of structure, tradition, style and content. Your presence on and contributions to the conference area of the WebBoard will record your participation.

I am proposing that you then develop a history of the book and the Internet. These are purposefully chosen as strongly contrasting medias. You will need to collectively resolve how you are going to present your information, who is going to prepare and research it and how I should assess it. (On the latter point I will make some suggestions, but you can choose the final method I adopt – after that, you will have to be prepared with that collective decision – we will vote if necessary.)

The finished product must of course have a media form itself – which you have to collectively decide on – and I would like there to be a strong relation (format?) which they both share. So we could be talking brochures or a booklet or poster/s here. It would be good too if you could remember that idea of interactivity implied by McLuhan’s idea of process: that reader/viewer involvement with the media (and through it with each other) might be demonstrated.

New media

Marshall McLuhan is often known as the prophet of the new media and yet he made his predictions about the global village on the strength of his theorizing on television. The instantaneous delivery and international scope of television suggested to McLuhan that information was from then on likely to be communicated in such a way that the viewer would become primary processor of information and that for the first time since the dominance of print, control of knowledge would be returned to the reader. Had McLuhan been able to participate in the internet, his predictions of ‘reader control’ would have been entirely vindicated. Here at last is a truly interactive media where the role of the art director has been challenged once again. This is because web design incorporates more sensory extensions than any other known media form. Traditionally graphic designers were only addressing the eye, but they now must compete with the ear, hand and brain if they are to fully realize the potential of the new media. The new media designer is closer in role to the film director than the print designer. These ‘new’ senses have been addressed in the past, but only rarely by the one person, so it is highly likely that the new media is going to force the graphic designer to be more collaborative in the construction of new media.

Variety of expression must be recognized as a virtue; it offers great challenges to the communication designer, but it also demands more and better discipline and control of a greater number of variables and this is never easy to realize. McLuhan would, I am sure, start by looking for the recycling of the older existing media on the web. Words like web pages and site covers imply much continuity with printed information design and yet the way the design elements are potentially reconfigured in the new media offers challenges to the new media designer that are cutting edge in their significance.

Until the .com bubble burst in the late nineties it seemed as if the new media challenge was going to be the main game in graphic design. Since then, it seems as though the new media are more likely to sit as options to print media, which appear to be resilient in demand and in their ability to reshape themselves to meet changing social and commercial needs.

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