Hot or Cold?

Donovon Horst – Ink and Watercolor 2021

Marshall McLuhan was a communication theorist that looked at different media through a binary lense. He believed that mediums were either hot or cold. Things he considered hot were highly stimulating and didn’t require as much viewer engagement. On the other hand, cold media required effort from the user. 

McLuhan’s theory about how user engagement changes based on the medium is something that I agree with. Watching a movie is a different experience than reading a book, and reading a book is different still from reading a magazine. Something that McLuhan failed to realize though, is that there are cascading levels of classification for the different media we engage with. Not only do the mediums themselves contain multitudes, but the medium can be experienced differently by different people. 

For example, if I were to watch a movie, I would need to follow the action on screen and recognize the visual cues the actors portray on screen. I’d also need to listen to and experience the atmosphere of the movie. If I were watching an American superhero movie, I am familiar with the language, myths/legends/histories that are within our sphere of influence, and the music that compliments the visual story. This would change if I were to watch a French Noir film or a Japanese Animation. I don’t know the language, and I won’t get all the cultural references made within the film. 

As the viewer, there are different ways I can experience the same movie as well. There is an unspoken agreement between the production team and the viewer. It is the job of the production team to make an immersive dream-like experience for the audience, while the audience suspends their disbelief to go along with the movie. If I decide to put on a superhero movie there are different ways I can choose to experience it. If I wanted to be taken along for the ride, I can relax and just go with the flow of the movie. The movie is predictable but colorful and dreamlike which makes sitting back and watching them feel like eye-candy (perhaps this is why they are so popular). But if I wanted to critically analyze how the visual effects were made to look cohesive with the action on screen, my experience would change. It would require more effort. 

Though regardless of who the viewer is and what they seek from the media, the information they are given is what makes their experience different. In a movie, viewers are provided with actors to embody characters, scenery to set the background, and even a camera to tell them where to look. Reading is usually dense with description which requires imagination. In the end, if the viewer has no stake in the content, they’ll only choose to engage with media if the hard work is done for them. 

This is why pop-up ads are so prevalent today, but also why billboards and posters are a large proponent of advertising. Each is placed at eye level and has a message that can be read and understood in less than 5 seconds. Good design is making the viewer take an extra second and making that message stick.