The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t ring more true for Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s captivating book The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. This work focuses on how technology is changing patterns of our everyday lives. One of the first things that drew me to this book was the overall aesthetics of it. I noticed it from the moment I first picked up the book and glanced at the cover. The Medium is the Massage is an “average sized” book, meaning not too big nor too small. Specifically, it is 4.1 x 0.6 x 7 inches, 160 pages, and four ounces. It is easy to pick up and carry, as I can comfortably hold it with one hand without feeling any strain. This paperback book from the North Carolina State University Design Library is in used condition with “perfect binding” (aka “soft cover binding”). Further using my senses to observe the book, I noticed that the paper felt crisp yet slightly bent in the corners indicating previous use from library visitors before me. The cover felt smooth, like any modern book would, and when I ruffled the pages in between my fingertips, it created a gentle sound and a light breeze. I love how, despite being made in 1967, the layout and arrangements have a “current-day” feel. The fact that this book was more images than words, around 70% to 30%, was fabulous in itself. The Medium is the Massage uses its medium, the book, to translate its message through layouts that provoke further thought. The more I glanced through the book, the more I noticed how the authors liked to use a single image enlarged across a whole spread with either a sentence, quote, or paragraph. On other spreads and pages, images were superimposed, abnormally stretched, rotated, extremely zoomed in, illustrated, etc. Even the typography has some variation with different fonts, sizes, rotations, and translations being displayed. It’s important to note that everything in the book, not just the cover itself, is black and white. This creates an interesting feel to the book as a whole. Without color drawing your eye to anything, placement and layout play a key factor in where the viewer’s eye travels. Although I touched on this earlier, I think it’s also important to note that this book is very timeless. Lots of messages in this book still hold true today, as well as lots of the designs and methods of organizing the spreads. For example, page 70 (Figure 1) shows a cartoon illustration of two girls in school walking down the hallway, as one girl says “It isn’t that I don’t like current events. There have just been so many of them lately” (McLuhan, Marshall). This message still pertains as true today. Not only have I thought of this message before, one of my high school friends actually said the exact same thing to me. In terms of design and layout, pages 104 and 105 (Figure 2) show a spread layout that is very prominent nowadays as well: a large image taking up a single page with minimal text. 

Figure 1: This illustration by cartoonist Robert Day shows two girls walking the halls as one states, “It isn’t that I don’t like current events. There have just been so many of them lately.”

Figure 2: Perhaps my favorite spread in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, this singular picture takes up two whole pages with a quote from Bob Dylan that reads “Because something is happening / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?”

Although the aesthetics and layouts were very intriguing, I was even more drawn in by the book’s message. It’s what makes the book so special and important enough to collect, along with the stellar design work. The message that this book sends is that “each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message” (McLuhan, Eric). This is still extremely relevant today, which makes it an “eye-opening” read for anyone of any age. It’s crazy to think about how this book was made in 1967, which is way before the first recognizable social media platform was created in 1997 (Hendricks). Thus, one could argue that Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore were ahead of their time. With McLuhan’s message and Fiore’s design work, these two were able to create a bestselling book that could translate to any audience, regardless of one’s reading preferences. It appeals to people who enjoy looking at pictures/designs as well as people who just enjoy reading text. The message gets across both ways. The title of this book, The Medium is the Massage, wasn’t originally supposed to be spelled how it is. When the book came back from the typesetters, “message” was spelled as “massage” instead. When McLuhan realized the mistake, he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” (McLuhan, Eric). This error was still in line with McLuhan’s point, as the media can “massage” the brain to behave in a particular way. Thus, there are now four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: “Message” and “Mess Age,” “Massage” and “Mass Age” (McLuhan, Eric). Released three years prior to The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan touched on the subject of media in a very similar way in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Later on in 1989, published after McLuhan’s death in 1980, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century was released. This book continued to spread McLuhan’s, arguably prophetic, messages about the media even when he was no longer here to preach his ideas. However, despite McLuhan’s books sharing the same topic, The Medium is the Massage stands apart from all of his other works because of Quentin Fiore’s designs. Fiore’s intelligent use of layouts, typography, images, etc. help to set The Medium is the Massage apart from McLuhan’s other books which rely heavily on text. Helping to popularize this book, Fiore noted that his goal was to reduce “complex ideas to simple signs, glyphs, patches of text” because “the linearity of the text in an average book wouldn’t do” (Seelye). He even admits that “after all, the medium was the message!” (Seelye). Steven Heller, a former art director for The New York Times Book Review, gushed that “Fiore took an intensely active role in making McLuhan’s fundamental ideas accessible to an increasingly visually literate audience,” further adding that “Fiore’s design was the first interactive/interconnected book of the information age” (Seelye). Thus, with Fiore’s captivating design work and McLuhan’s ever-relevant message, The Medium is the Massage is, undoubtedly, a book worth taking a look at.

Figure 3: This spread from The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects shows the range of intense design that Quentin Fiore utilized.

Figure 4: Here is one of the pages out of Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s book The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. It shows the word “environment” spread across two pages that are not next to each other as a spread in the book. This image shows one half of this non-consecutive spread.

Works Cited

Hendricks, Drew. “The Complete History of Social Media: Then And Now.” Small Business Trends, Small Business Trends LLC, 25 Nov. 2019,

McLuhan, Eric. “Commonly Asked Questions about McLuhan – The Estate of Marshall McLuhan.” Marshall McLuhan, The Estate of Corinne & Marshall McLuhan,

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Massage. Random House, 1967.

Seelye, Katharine Q. “Quentin Fiore, Who Made the Medium His Message, Dies at 99.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 May 2019,