A quick guide to choosing the right medium for the right job
A wise man once said "The medium is the message". Ok, ok, we all know Marshall McLuhan and his famous phrase and I won't bore you any further. Still, that sentence might be more important than ever. We're not living in a world of books, newspapers, radio, and television anymore. The web is mashing together every human output and content in new forms and ways — comprehensively so, but also crazy and chaotic at times.
Working in the field of communications, we are regularly exposed to more than one type of medium we have to channel and deal with. Knowing when to use a particular medium, though, is key to getting your information across. One might be safe just by looking at trends and compare what others are doing. But being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each medium could make the difference between a good strategy for marketing, advertising or information and a great one. Let's have a quick look.
There's a reason that plain copy is the fundamental pillar of our society and one of the primary ways we have been communicating for centuries: it's very flexible and probably as precise as it gets. With text, we can get almost any information across, even long after an event happened, and then fix it forever. Reading and writing are relatively easy to learn — depending on the source, more that 80% of the world's population can at least handle one language in written words.
On the other hand, communicating with pure text is quite slow. Although our brain is a sophisticated text processor, the consumer has to scan for individual letters, forming words, forming sentences and finally extracting the core information from a chunk of copy. This is a very heavy process for our cognitive capabilities, so be aware that you will sacrifice speed for clarity.
Paintings, photos, icons, or any form of visual communication is fast. Really fast. Our eyes are one of the most evolved sensors and can process a great amount of visual information in milliseconds: dark, gleeful, bright, sinister, colorful, chaotic, or clean and simple ...
Also, our process of remembering improves dramatically by connecting a particular memory to a picture. Maybe a face, maybe a location, maybe a pattern. As soon as this particular visual element appears, you're immediately able to draw connections.
The downside of visual communication is your brain's capability and tendency to interpret things based on your experiences and expectations. An unfamiliar icon can be misleading. A color transports one connotation in a certain culture and a completely different one in another. A picture of a victorious fighter transports joy for a fan and disappointment for the opponent's followers.
If you're striving for fast attention, for quick access or motivating continuation, your first choice of medium should definitely be an image. But always be aware of a certain lack of clarity due to the nature of human interpretation. If you're not perfectly certain that your image gets its message across on its own, you should consider adding in some text.
Auditive signals are an essential part of human perception. Sound helps us determine a sense of location, physical awareness and completion. The clicking sound of a key pushed on your computer's keyboard combined with the pressure at our fingertip is just enough to perfectly understand that you are really writing.
There's also an emotional component to music that we can't ignore. More than any other medium, music and sound helps us to relate to something on a deeper level. I bet all your favorite movies feature a very strong soundtrack — this might not be a coincidence.
While you might not be able to use audio signals to communicate fast and clear, the best usecases might be the ones with a supporting role. This could be a short sound when you get a new message or an error dialog, a calm aural loop in an art gallery, or the pumping metal soundtrack while you're blasting aliens in the latest space shooter.
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There are certainly other, more complex types of media to be explored, but most are based on or combine these three core forms. Once you clearly understand the strengths and weaknesses of each, you will be able to use different mediums much more efficiently, culminating in a perfect combination of all three. You will be able to communicate faster and clearer, build up stronger connections and deeper attachments for you, your clients, and your user base.
Now let's see what happens if we add in video, haptic perception, scent, interaction, gorillas, flying cars, the Milky Way, quantum physics, ...