Icon Essay

April 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, born in Edmonton, Canada in 1911, was a professor of English, teaching at Saint Louis University and Assumption College (Ontario) until 1944 when he became a philosopher and teacher of communication theory in the 1950s. McLuhan’s reputation grew drastically over these years, being offered many a selection of jobs at various Universities in the United States. In 1963, as an attempt to keep him at the University of Toronto, the Centre of Culture and Technology was created, being made the head of department, where he began presenting the ‘Communication and Culture’ seminars, of which were funded by the Ford Foundation. From 1967, he spent the remainder of his life teaching here. McLuhan’s influences came from the New Criticism movement, the faculty of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, with major influences arising from Hugh Kenner and Harold Innis, of whom he worked with at the University of Toronto.

McLuhan’s interests lied within structure, utility, function and experimentation within functional environments, displaying great enthusiasm in how technology drives different cultures and their ideas. The core theme running through his work looks upon how technology affects the forms and scale of social organisation and individual lives. He introduced many new ways of looking upon media theory, showing the world how technologies are enabling devices, which extend human ability, as well as predicting the World Wide Web 30 years before it’s creation. McLuhan’s work is considered one of the cornerstones of media theory, contributing largely in this area of work.

McLuhan is most notoriously known for his theory “The medium is the message”; this was one of his many McLuhanisms, as they began to be called. The theory was popularised upon the release of his book ‘The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects’ in 1967, becoming a bestseller.
McLuhan’s perspective was that a medium affects the society in which it acts within not by the content, or information, delivered over the medium, but instead by the features of the medium itself. McLuhan defined a medium (often being new technologies) as any extension of our bodies, minds, or being, though with an extension comes an amputation. For example, the wheel is an extension of the foot, though also amputating its use simultaneously, inhabilitating us from performing it’s original function of walking.
McLuhan forces us to re-analyse what we all know by “medium” and “message”, where “message” can be defined as “information” or “content”, though with this McLuhan believes that one of the most important elements of media is neglected, that their ability to alter the course and ability of human activities and relations. McLuhan appropriately redefines the “message” as any change in pattern, pace, or scale that a medium causes in cultures or societies. This is very evident, specifically in today’s day and age with computer technologies, looking upon the digital age children and the profound effects it’s had on the generation, for better and for worse. Using the Internet as an example, on one hand it’s used as an amazing tool, which is used to extend our knowledge vastly, allowing for an extensive array of things to be learnt that would otherwise be unknown to people. Though on the other hand, there is the largely unproductive, darker, side to the Internet. Here is where people can slip into a cycle of unproductivity, procrastination, and an escape from reality, where individuals often substitute organic human interaction for Internet use and cyber interactivity, using technology to socialise.
With McLuhan’s new definition, “content” becomes a mask for how media interact, working in couples, where one medium holds another (and another within that etc.). E.g. a book contains printed word, which contains writing, containing speech; the contained medium becomes the message for the containing one. There are however two exceptions to media working in doubles, the first being speech – speech contains thought, but the chain of media abruptly ends there as thought is a pure process, and non-verbal. The second single media is the electric light – this light source allows for people to perform activities hat would otherwise not be able in the dark. The activities themselves can be considered the “content” of the light, but the light itself contains no medium.



McLuhan’s second most known theory is that of the “Global Village”:

“The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”
– The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

This theory describes of an interconnection with everything, to an extent where it hypothetically shrinks the world into a village via electronic technologies, allowing for instantaneous movement of data and information from every corner of the globe. In McLuhan’s time, this theory was applied to the telephone, though the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s meant that McLuhan’s theory could once again be seen, and in a big way, this resulted in the revival of McLuhan. The Internet connects people all over the world at an instant, compressing the world where distances from one another feel much smaller, becoming a “global village”.
A sort of smoke signaling effect was apparent; this is amplified by all these broadcast technologies, interrelating the worldwide community.
This theory differs greatly from the extensions of man, which is a seemingly more intimate concept.

Another popular media theory (though not as well known as the previous theories mentioned) is his idea of “hot and “cold” media. In McLuhan’s eyes, all media is classified as “hot” or “cold”; referring to the various sensory effects connected with “high-definition” and “low-definition”, where he adopts the terminology used within television. Like the name would suggest, “high-definition” media are sharp and detailed images and audio, including photographs, movies, lectures, print, letters of the alphabet, and radio, otherwise known as “hot” media as these supply us with large amounts of information, leaving us with little to do as they do the talking, we simply listen.  Furthermore, “Low-definition”, or “cool”, media are forms that are ill defined; these include cartoons & sketches, television, telephone, and speech. With these media we are granted a rather small amount of information in comparison, making us have to investigate what is visible, then fill in the gaps so we can fully understand the media.
McLuhan puts forward the concept of our physical senses and perceptions being associated with media; “cool” media are high in participation where as “hot” media are low. When referring to participation McLuhan isn’t only talking about our intellectual involvement, but instead to how engaged our physical senses are with different mediums.


When creating my Icon book I went through six logical steps to develop it:
1. Look at current Icon books – this would gain me a basic understanding along the lines of what I have to produce, looking upon the style and structure that the books use, the content they hold, and the illustrations that demonstrate theories appropriately.
2. Look at contemporary examples of Icon books, or similar, that illustrates ideas and images in their own style, rather than following the in house design style of the Icon book series.
3. Roughly plan the content of my own Icon book – here I would choose my theorist, apply relevant biographical and historical context, look upon their core theories which I would illustrate accordingly, then choosing what and how I’d illustrate the imagistic qualities of the Icon book.
4. Planning the textual content of the Icon book – for this I used Microsoft Word, this would allow for easy application of text into Adobe InDesign when the designing process began.
5. Reading through the text I’d use, gaining ideas of what kind of images I’d use to represent my theorist and their theories, then actually creating them using photo manipulation techniques.
6. Finalising the Icon book treatment – here I would plan where the images and text would sit within the final document, treating the typography, image size and location, finally exporting the document.


The front page of my Icon book shows Marshall McLuhan’s portrait within an old television screen, abstracted by heavy white noise and television distortion, as well as the SMPTE colour bars test screen which would appear in a previous generation of television broadcasting. This is all a play on the general occupation of McLuhan, being a media theorist, as well as his theory of “The Medium is the Message”, where in this case McLuhan is the message. McLuhan’s name as the title is textured with television noise also, to further the media aspect of his work.

The second and third pages focus on his core theory “The medium is the message”. The second page playfully illustrates McLuhan’s idea of the extensions of man. I display these extensions in a witty literal sense, also displaying how we focus those particular sense and activities toward those mediums. The wheel is an extension of the foot, the computer is an extension to the central nervous system, and the radio is an extension of our ears, where I’ve utilised a portrait of McLuhan in his younger years. The textual image occupying the majority of the third page is another portrait of McLuhan, created using the words “THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE”. I chose to do this to play on the idea of content, mediums within mediums, and so on, by repeating the quote over and over. The cyclist simply illustrates the idea of amputations while an extension is in use; here the cyclist’s legs are occupied by the moving of the bike pedals. To clearly demonstrate this concept I reduced the opacity of the cyclist’s legs so you are able to see straight through them, then adding a stroked red line along the edges of his legs to illustrate them being amputated, or in use, therefore losing the ability to use them for any other function.

Page 4 moves onto the theory of the “Global Village”, the image shows Indians waving a fire emanating from the logo of the Internet browser Firefox that is producing the smoky words “GLOBAL VILLAGE”, with an Earth made from human figures in the background. This is referring to the smoke signaling (being the first form of contact at distances by the Indians) effect that broadcast technologies have, but I use it in a more contemporary context, doing so with the Internet. I use the Firefox logo for the evident reason that it is made of fire, but also that it encircles the Earth in its grasp. The smoke produced from this fire creates the name of the theories’ title.

The final page quite clearly shows the “hot” and “cold” media theory. The name of the theory instantly brings to mind the feelings of hot and cold senses, the result of this brought me to simply showing various hot/high-definition and cool/low-definition media on fire and frozen. The final two images situated at the bottom of the page illustrate high and low definition media, shown by the simple means of a photograph, and a cartoonised sketch of the same photo.


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