McLuhan 01: Media Ages

Marshall McLuhan, the famous Media Theorist, divided human history into distinct media ages, the inhabitants of each relying on certain senses depending on the technology of the time: Tribal, an ‘Acoustic Era’ of spoken word; Literary, where language became a visual code; Print, where that code was mass-produced and standardised; Electronic, where the world became a neo-tribal, connected global village (McLuhan, 1962).

Presented here are characters who live in each time, their features and movements uniquely ‘mutated’ to embody each epoch.

The McLuhan character-design series (01-Media Ages; 02-Hot vs. Cool Media; 03-Four Laws)

Just as drawn models present complex information in simple forms (Schultz & Cobley, 2013), and prototypes are the embodiment of concepts and understandings (Wensveen & Matthews, 2014), animation can be used to clearly represent theory in novel ways. As a moving art-form, animation is perfectly suited to present & describe the actions (look, hear, retrieve, reverse, heat, cool) in McLuhan’s work, enhancing the transparency of each idea (Schlosser R.W. et al. 2012).

You can use the images in the McLuhan Sections of this website for your teaching and research, but please ensure you appropriately cite the author (Shaun Britton) and the website (Squidinc Studio).


McLuhan, M. (1964). The Gutenberg galaxy: the making of typographic man (1st ed.) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Schulz, P., & Cobley, P. (2013). Theories and models of communication (2nd ed.). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Schlosser R.W. et al. (2012). Animation of graphic symbols representing verbs and prepositions: effects on transparency, name agreement, and identification. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2012 Apr;55(2):342-58.

Wensveen, S., & Matthews, B. (2014). Prototypes and prototyping in design research. In P. Rodgers & J. Yee (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Design Research (pp. 262–276).

Tribal Age

In the ‘primitive’ acoustic age, before the alphabet, hearing and smell were important; as omnidirectional senses, they could interpret the spoken word, or sense surrounding danger. This meant that life was spontaneous and information was immediate but ephemeral.

The ripples surrounding this appropriately-equipped character depict their ever-present, moving sense-scape.

Tribal Age

Literary Age

In this age, the invention of the alphabet meant that sight became the dominant sense. Information, no longer just a sound or smell, was permanently represented on a surface. People could be more detached and didn’t need to interact with others to learn about the world.

The character’s arms here represent a barrier, a closed-off wall isolating an independent learner. The dominant eye scans back and forth across an information-laden surface.

Literary Age

Print Age

Printing technology allowed the written word to be mass-produced and distributed, allowing independent learning to be widespread. Where artisans reproduced the alphabet in a myriad of intuitive styles in the Literary Age, print forced information into linear and uniform reproduction; the end of ‘manuscript culture’ and the start of imposed standardisation, the assembly line, and industrial society.

This character scans a portable book from right to left, then starts again, the movement echoing repetitive factory production. While the book represented here is open to everyone, it’s implied that each character will set their gaze on their own information.

Print Age

Electronic Age

In this age, electronic technology could be used to share information instantly, as people did in the tribal age with the spoken word. Society could become a single tribe again; a ‘global village’.

While this character lives in a new sense-scape, the ripples emanate from screens, not their immediate surroundings; they are connected, but they are also isolated in that interactive environment.

Go to McLuhan 02
Electronic Age
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