Our creative work is shaped by the mediums through which we transmit it.
I’m using the word ‘creative’ in the sense of ‘things that are created,’ not just a painting or novel or LP. Artistic creative work is shaped by its container, certainly, but so is software and your coffee maker.
The band Talking Heads sounded the way they did because their initials shows were performed at the CGBG, a performance space in which the acoustics sounded a certain way, which required the bands that performed there to sound a certain way, which in turn lead to the distinctive sound of the funk rock movement they helped create (frontman David Byrne wrote a great book in which he discusses this in more detail).
The modern music album, up until very recently, was about 74 minutes long. This length is not the natural duration for a complete musical thought, but rather the upper limit of the technology in which it was born, the compact disc (there are conflicting accounts as to why 74 minutes was chosen by Sony executives, though it was probably because the small increase in disc diameter led to a huge digital storage advantage over their competitors). Whatever the real reasons for this storage-related choice, it shaped modern music, the music industry, and how we listen to music in many ways.
The modern novel is another creature that generally takes on certain dimensions and a certain length, not because books should be around 200 to 400 pages, but because printing technologies and the nature of the printing business that grew up around those technologies meant that printing shorter or longer books resulted in inferior profits.
The Aeropress coffee maker was designed with replicability in mind, by a man who’s many inventions had taught him to think in such terms. Consequently, while he was focused on ensuring his device created the best possible cup of joe according to his standards, he was also designing it to ensure it could be reproduced cheaply, efficiently, and internationally, which in turn shaped its business model and industrial design.
I’ll sometimes joke that often my shorter books are the ones in which I really know the topic I’m discussing, and if I ever really know a topic well, I’ll start publishing fortune cookies about it. The books get shorter because I can express what I want to express in fewer words, which takes work and refinement to accomplish.
But the truth of the matter is that there are some topics that are more ideal for shorter missives, for text messages or tweets, than others. Understanding this, and recognizing what that medium is for, what it helps you convey better rather than sub-optimally, is part of the responsibility a creator of things must take on. We don’t just make, we share what we make. And you can make the most amazing thing in the world but still have no one benefit from it if you do not understand the medium through which you’re sharing or distributing it.
This is, of course, just one of a million things that makers of all kinds need to keep in mind, and as such it often falls into the background, buried by seemingly more important issues.
But there’s a reason that mediocre work with smooth delivery channels can often out-perform and out-influence incredible work with dilapidated delivery channels. If you really believe in what you’re doing, what you’re trying to get into more hands or minds, it’s worth putting in the time to master your mediums.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter.