Medium vs. Message

Participants will learn a brief history of the internet geared towards understanding the evolution of contemporary design practices, then examine three major design foundations for web (black/white contrast, top-down and left-right reading, and grid systems) to understand how these aesthetics reinforce dominant social structures, and finally brainstorm together alternative design practices and what alternative social structures they could enable.

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a philosopher's introduction to radical design
Why philosophy?

Why begin with philosophy? Frankly I hate the idea that certain kinds of knowledge are more true or more trustworthy than others, but the fact remains that designers who choose to break the rules are often asked to justify their decisions. Speaking the language of hegemony can be a survival tool, and the hegemony loves dialectical reasoning.


"The medium is the message."

Sorry, Marshall

In fairness, McLuhan wrote this quote in 1964, a time before the internet as we now know it. We are being kind of unfair here -- he wrote a whole book, not just one sentence, and goes into a lot of nuances that five words just can't express. Still, what is most often remembered is this quote, so I think it's fair to set him up just to knock him down like this.


This famous quote by Marshall McLuhan, which predates the internet's existence, is a foundation for contemporary design. However, like all simple, declarative sentences, it contains a number of underlying premises. If we examine those premises, we can decide if this statement is helpful or harmful to radical design principles.

Definition medium (n): the way in which a message or meaning is transmitted, ex. a greeting card, a streetsign, a letter, a computer screen

Definition message (n): the content or meaning being delivered

The initial premise of this sentence is that medium is more important than message. If we take this premise as true, we start to understand the basic role of design.


On dialectical reasoning

This is a pretty foundational method for argumentation. You're probably familiar with it even if you don't know its name. Sometimes also called "point, counterpoint" argumentation. The idea is to crash two opposing ideas together (thesis and antithesis) and see what comes out the other side (synthesis). We mostly get this style of argumentation from Hegel, and he's not totally wrong that it works, but we should all stop sometimes to wonder why it takes conflict to create new knowledge.


The ideal aesthetic position is for the medium and the message to be in alignment, and content is always sublimated to form. Tension between medium and message, form and content, is antithetical to meaning, muddles intentions, and is challenging if not upsetting to readers, viewers, audiences.

True enough, design is streamlined when medium and message are in alignment -- but do we that is the only purpose for design? Most artists, I think, do not. So what is our counterpoint?

Antithesis The role of art is to make the world unfamiliar again in order to challenge audiences to negotiate their assumptions and collaborate with others to create meaning in the world. Tension between medium and message, form and content, is one way of provoking shock and inciting innovation, revolution, reconciliation.

This perspective is also valid. Difficulty and contradiction have an important role to play in art and design. So how can both these things be true?

Synthesis The goal of design is to capitalize on existing aesthetic structures, mediums, to communicate meaning most effectively -- sometimes through cohesion (the medium is the message) and sometimes through productive collision (the medium versus the message).

All of which is to say, radical design work breaks the rules as an act of public good. See also: punk music, dadaist art, civil disobedience.

punk speaks dada
web evolution (webvolution, if you will)

a brief history of the internet

The internet is a built structure. Like all things, it has a foundation that has been created upon over and over again. When it comes to designing for web, we need to understand this history in order to understand what purposes the internet has been created to serve. That is, to understand the medium, we should look at the messages.

web 1.0

Personal sites, non-commercialized, small number of creators, static pages, file systems, server-side includes, HTML styling. Angelfire, Geocities, Altavista.

web 2.0

Participatory sites, user-generated and user-curated content, search engine indexing, online advertising, dynamic and interactive content, blogs, forums, early social media, APIs, RSS feeds, CSS styling. AOL, Google, MySpace, Xanga, Blogster, Amazon.

web 3.0

Semantic sites, dynamic database systems, predictive and connective content, internet ubiquity, corporate sites, content regulations, data ownership, widespread advertising. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Web Services.

web 4.0 (the internet to come)

Systemic sites, the internet of things, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, breaking free of the screen. Meta, Occulus, Google Home, Alexa.

Explored in these broad strokes trends, we see that although the internet is celebrated for creating more accessible information and freer exchange between individuals, over time the internet has become less accessible, less private, and more commercialized. As large tech corporations create a monopoly on the internet, owning your own data and controlling your own web presence is more difficult than ever -- although it seems easy to create a social media account, you can only post content, or share a message, that the form, the medium, allows.

The foundational design rules are controlling even closer the kind of information that can be shared on the web -- how can we break them until we know what they are?

the structure behind the structure

foundational design principles

The internet is just as material as the rest of the world around us. It is hard coded on servers that exist in real geographies, and is delivered to us on screens that are tangible and built of rare earth minerals. These foundational principles are as much a result of real-world limitations as digital ones, but for the purposes of this module, we will focus on the aesthetic principles that the internet is based on.

black/white contrast

Black text on white backgrounds is the default; color is a departure from the norm; white or green text on black backgrounds has been replaced and become antiquated.

Top-down + left-right reading

Web pages load at the "top" and are typically scrolled in one dimension. Content is prioritized according to this hierarchy.

Text is loaded and parsed from left to right on both backend servers (for data processing) and frontend pages (seen by audiences, viewers); accessibility readers follow this order.

grid system

Design elements are created from right angles and parallel lines, and must be nested within one another; content is prioritized according to this hierarchy.

These principles make up some of the norms for web publishing, they are the default settings and as such, any departures occur with deliberate choice. Design choices that swim with the current of these principles are very intuitive, ones that swim against the current are difficult, necessary.

When we understand these design principles, we also understand what kind of information is easily communicated on the internet, and what kinds of messages require a radical design practice. From the history of the internet and these principles, we can see that commercial, hierarchical information feels at home on the web, while non-hierarchical organizations and information systems will be more difficult to represent.

the only way to win is not to play

why radicalize web design?

Synthesis The goal of design is to capitalize on existing aesthetic structures, mediums, to communicate meaning most effectively -- sometimes through cohesion (the medium is the message) and sometimes through productive collision (the medium versus the message).

Fighting against the current is difficult, tiring work. It is also important work. Although the organizations who choose not to participate in a hostile infrastructure like the web are making a vital and understandable choice for their survival, radicalizing web design to bring these non-standard designs to the web is an important choice too.

make consent requisite

What do you agree to? What are you willing to participate in? Radicalizing web design by articulating your ability to engage on a free and anonymous internet ensures that large tech monopolies depend on your consent when asking for private information and data ownership.

maintain your right to deface

True ownership comes from the ability to break and reimagine what you have. You cannot break an instagram account, all you can do is follow the rules of form or not participate. Individuals have the greatest ability to break the rules, and therefore truly own, their own web space.

learn the lessons of land and water

Land and water both used to be natural resources we could not imagine being privately owned. When we let people own them, the world got worse. So too we used to imagine the internet, a free and radical space that belonged to everyone, and if you think the internet is any less material than land and water, the fight is already lost.

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what next?

You have completed Module 01: Medium Vs. Message. For more on this subject, examine the links and resources below. When you are ready, launch Module 02: Radicalizing Design.

launch module 02


Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, 1964.

Brian L. Ott and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: an Introduction, 2010.


Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment, 1790.

Victor Schlovsky, "Art as Technique," 1917.

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1996.


Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 with their difference, Geeks for Geeks.

The Motivations and Methods of Web Defacement, Trend Micro

questions for review

Is the medium the message? What is the role of productive tension between the two?

What kinds of information are best suited to the internet? What can you imagine is difficult to represent online?

What does your website need to do, be, communicate? How much of that message is alignment with the internet medium, and how much is at odds?

What are you willing to compromise to make your content fit the web form, and what is non-negotiable?