Unread Messages


9 March 2016

“I’ve whatsapped, facebooked, emailed and even tweeted before I get out of bed,” writes research participant b_king.

Such an admission is hardly surprising. In 2014, a report published by UK communications regulator Ofcom found that the average Briton spends eight hours and 41 minutes each day on media devices, 20 minutes more than the average night's sleep. Findings published by The Internet Advertising Bureau report a similar trend online. Its most recent report, published in February 2016, shows that British adults spend an average of two hours and 59 minutes online every day. Of this time spent online, 16.7 per cent is spent browsing social media.

With electronic devices and digital communication becoming increasingly prevalent in everyday life, the social and ethical implications of this burgeoning digitally-reliant society are becoming more pertinent. Unread Messages, an exhibition hosted at The Aram Gallery in London, explores such topics. Devised by London-based creative agency Six:Thirty, Unread Messages features the work of eight designers who have each created products designed to encourage a more controlled relationship with devices and digital applications. “It’s a good way of broadening the scope of the topic,” says James Cuddy, co-founder of Six:Thirty. “By gaining new perspectives, it allows you to look at the topic in a different way.”

What is particularly interesting about Unread Messages is its objective, research-led approach. Rather than being based on presumptions about society’s digital consumption, the content of the exhibition instead stems from the findings of a month-long study conducted by London-based insights consultancy Northstar. “Both James and I had our own ideas and a love-hate relationship with technology,” says Roma Levin, co-founder of Six:Thirty. “We use it everyday and it permeates all the aspects of our lives. But we wanted to make sure that the hypotheses were as objective and as well-researched as possible.”

Through creating an online forum, in which more than 125 members of the public participated in various moderated discussion threads, Six:Thirty was able to gather objective, qualitative data indicating society’s current relationship with digital communications and devices. “It felt quite confessional,” says Levin, “and it really proved the point that there was a need for discussion.”

From the research, Six:Thirty was able to identify three themes that were most prevalent across the study’s findings: Empowered But Dependent, exploring the paradox between the positive effects of an increasingly digitalised world and the limitations of becoming dependant on devices; The Curated Self, looking at the way social networks allow us to craft favourable personas for ourselves; and Compulsive Behaviours, examining the concept of always being connected to devices and the interference it bears on everyday life.

These three themes formed the basis of the brief Six:Thirty gave to designers. “We tried to condense things in a way that allowed designers quite a lot of space to work within but still had some resonance with what people had been talking about in the research,” says Cuddy. “That was the brief: a bit of context, the challenge – which was to essentially answer the question of how we can improve our relationship with technology – and also the conceptual requirements and the design principles.”

The resulting products are purposely eclectic, spanning digital, physical and interactive. Nomu by London-based designer Matteo Loglio is designed to make internet usage more focused and productive. It comprises four coloured blocks that collectively represent two hours spent online. Each block represents a different activity and time unit and can be programmed to filter unwanted content, displaying only websites relevant to the activities predetermined by the user.

Venetian design practice Zanellato/Bortotto’s design for the exhibition also combines a physical exhibit with an app. Consisting of a mirror with an affixed light connected to an app that monitors digital consumption, the product seeks to help users balance time spent online with that spent offline. The more time spent browsing devices, the brighter the light becomes. The brighter the light becomes, the greater the mirror’s reflection is obstructed.

Unread Messages should be applauded for its considered, research-based approach. Stemming from objective, factual data, the exhibition provides relevant, design-led solutions to managing digital consumption yet manages to avoid the temptation to scaremonger. “One of the most important things,” says Levin “is that we are not anti-technology or anti-screen time. It is just about finding a balance.”