The Form and Fashion of Communication: A Perspective of Aesthetics
by Amanda Coventry-Berridge
The most iconic evolution of communication technology since the Radio was at first, a wildly unpredictable gamble. Picture the year 1983, a fledgling year in the new decade and unknowingly, the birth of one of the largest technology industries known to the 21st century. The first mobile phones enter the market — its manufacturers insistent on its success, the skeptics arguably just as enthusiastic about its downfall. The clunky, space grey construct weighs heavily in the palm of your hand, the antenna sticking out its top necessary to extract before you dial your desired number on the black numeric keys. A 14-year old in 2016 would scoff at its dismal battery life, the excessive charging hours, and the awkward design. But in 1983, the 14-year old that got the chance to hold the Motorola DYNATAC 8000X saw only what every other awe-struck and starry-eyed consumer saw; the future.
Dramatic, isn’t it? Consider the function and form of the DYNATAC and posture it against its predecessors. The previous car-phones rolled out in the late 70’s were so large they were better placed in your automobile, assuming a form of pseudo-mobility that, while advanced, did not quite demonstrate its potential.
The Motorola DYNATAC 8000X was mobile in every sense of the word. There was no car, no wires, no limitations — so attuned to your person and your lifestyle that it was even curved to your face. But the design was a prototype at best, and simply put a foundation on which all mobile phones would ascend from.
Consider the next few mobile phones that would be released in the 1980’s:
MOTOROLA MICROTAC 9800X
MOTOROLA INTERNATIONAL 3200
These next few models made marginal improvements on battery life and communication quality, but stayed relatively faithful to the DYNATAC’s structural design. Here, the generations of mobile design were more reserved and evolutionary — encouraging an economy of cyclical consumerism rather that inciting revolution. I would argue that here, the aesthetics of the mobile phone were engineered to emphasize continuity and comfort. This method I would argue was congruent with the cyclical behaviours exercised by consumers — by producing safely popular designs that would likely sell well with the growing consumer audience. To support this assertion, I cite the placement of the numeric keys and the command keys. On a consistent basis the placement and feel of these crucial buttons would remain identical, with the color scheme consisting of darkened color palettes.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the first LED, color, and interactive phones are quickly lining up in the now stable mobile technology market. Cell phones, as they are now fondly referred to, are lighter and more compact than their predecessors. Screens have made their way onto the scene, providing a greater visual interaction between user and device. Ground-breaking innovations, to be sure, but once again the aesthetic of such devices (more specifically the NOKIA 7110, 5210, and the ERICSSON T68).
I would argue that the first evolution of aesthetics in relation to cell phones emerged with the emergence of ‘touch’ phones, or mobile devices that replaced the alpha-numeric keys with a electronically receptive glass screen that received user commands through fingers. Its largely revolutionary design in contrast to the ‘flip’ and numeric phones — which had churned out clone after clone — suddenly placed the physical design and function as the primary focus of user status and product attraction.
Suddenly, it became relevant to a user’s identity which style of cell phone they used and more importantly, why they were used in place of another. The touch phone quickly became the hallmark of innovation, a bold technological assertion of its user to refuse to remain bound by the tried and trusted technologies of the past — a statement arguably not used since the arrival of the DYNATAC itself.
And while I sing praises of the touch phone, what is more critical here to recall is the shift in focus from function and continuity to form and social status.
Now if you’re a 90’s baby like myself, you might have picked your jaw up from the floor of your living room or bedroom after watching the commercial that advertised the Motorola RAZR, a flip phone that was dangerously slim and appealing to the eye. There was no talk of battery charge or weight or stored numbers. There was light, and texture, sound and silence. The RAZR was not a cell phone — it was art.
And now I sit here, my Samsung Galaxy S5 lovingly tucked into my arm, its touch screen alight when someone dings my Facebook page. It’s art in my eyes. It’s art in the eyes of half the world, the world ensnared by their communication companion. The world does not see communication as the luxury it had once been regarded as when the home telephone debuted in the 1940’s. Communication is a part of life, rather than a lifestyle itself. And now that we all hold consistency and function in our hands, we freely pursue style and status as the hallmark of communication, the future still riding the horizon.
The Evolution of Cell Phone Design from 1983–2009,