Form and content

The duo that pervades all of science, technology and society—and art

Over the last few months I have repeatedly come across the idea of form and content, and I have come across it in a variety of contexts. This has led me to suspect that, far from being an artificial construct, form and content are an elementary, natural couplet present across all of nature.

I first came across this idea in Marshall McLuhan’s book The Medium is the Message. In it, the primary argument made is that the medium through which a message is conveyed shapes the reception, perception, interpretation and effectiveness of that message. For my own part I came across this in the context of my research on science communication. Some forms of communication like magazines, websites and television programmes tend to restrict science communication to the so-called “dissemination model” while others like citizen science projects, social media interaction sessions etc. afford a more engaged “dialogue” or “participation” model. In other words, the form in which content is presented shapes everything from its effectiveness to its robustness to its understanding, giving rise to various models of science communication.

But the idea of form and content goes well beyond this context. Most obviously, there is the question of design. This came up in conversation with a good friend recently (a designer) who pointed out as much in a brief conversation that led us to conclude that a fundamentally more modern typeface can more fittingly convey novel ideas, even when the ideas are derived from history and when the content is academic in nature. He also pointed to the example of electric vehicles—symbols of clean cut futuristic minimalism—preferring similarly sharply cut sans-serif typefaces in their branding as an example of the interdependence of content and form.

Across these examples we see both form dictating content and content dictating form. How much further can this phenomenon be stretched?

A 1990 study of second language acquisition showed that language learners have trouble paying equal attention to both form and content while learning. Early learners in particular are more reliant on content in the nature of vocabulary and meaning, often failing to pick up cues about the context viz. moved noun phrase or non-canonical word ordering in a sentence. This brings out a key difference between language acquisition and comprehension—or content and form. In this case, however, they do not seem at first to be interdependent. But look at them differently: might early language learners be separated from advanced or native language speakers based on the latter’s superior appreciation of both content and form?

The ubiquity of the form and content duo might go beyond communication models and advertising and learning to more mundane, everyday activities like watching television. As a 1999 study showed, the act of “looking” at a television which can “influence the development of cognition, attitudes, and social behaviour” is dependent on both the content and the form of a television programme. Rather than concluding based on content alone that kids like kids’ shows and adults like adult shows (which is true), evidence seems to suggest that the form in which this content is communicated has considerable impact. For example the “form” of animation elicited a greater response in kids and use of “adult characters” as the form of delivery of story content elicited greater responses in adults than in kids; and when it came to using “cuts” as a form of conveying content, both kids and adults responded similarly. As the paper says, “Cuts, for example, are often used as syntactic elements to convey content ... Rapid cutting between characters or locations can convey a feeling of excitement.”

The presence of interdependent form and content could therefore be seen as a fundamental characteristic of existence at all levels, scales and platforms. Perhaps we are so used to them that we no longer question them or feel the need to do so. But that begs the obvious question: what are we losing by restricting the way we look at the world to not recognise the influence that forms and contents are perpetually having on each other? And what more do we stand to gain by recognising and capitalising on them?

You just read issue #18 of Confluence. If you liked it, there is more. New issues are sent out roughly every fortnight. Please consider subscribing to this newsletter.