Just over 50 years ago, the very first email was sent by programmer Ray Tomlinson. The content of the message itself wasn’t anything particularly illuminating – it contained the top line of a qwerty keyboard – but that correspondence changed the trajectory of communications forever. Technological developments have come and gone, but even now, five decades later, email is still integral to how we live, work, and share, as a free exhibition at the Design Museum in London, co-curated with Intuit Mailchimp, is keen to show.
There’s not an immediately obvious design angle covered in the show that explains the Design Museum’s choice to host it (and the experience is perhaps most interesting from the perspective of a brand-institution parnership) though the display itself is beautifully designed.
A collaboration between Intuit Mailchimp’s in-house creative department, Wink, and Something Special Studios, the team managed to turn a subject that is relatively dry into a playful experience. Retro graphics have been cut out and blown up around the space, and the (very Instagram-able) final room takes the idea of the cloud and runs with it. The team went so far as to give a scent and a sound to email, which, if they’re right, has a gentle lavender aroma and a lo-fi beat.
The most moving part of the experience is the tunnel lined with enlarged snippets of emails that changed people’s lives in one way or another. Among the unknown members of the public who discovered love, opportunities, and even long-lost family members thanks to email are stories associated with famous figures: a young skater optimistically reaching out to Virgil Abloh, or eventual Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia deliberating over email about renting out their apartment.
The main message of the exhibition is that email is everywhere and going nowhere, which, of course, is a convenient conclusion for the brand to arrive at. At times there’s a heavy-handedness to this argument – for example, predictions about the future of email largely coming from Mailchimp Pro customers, or an installation that displays the monetary value of email marketing and even of using Mailchimp’s products.
However, these instances are relatively rare, and they’re offset elsewhere, such as in an entire room that playfully addresses people’s gripes with email – including the very mechanisms that Mailchimp relies upon, like an unsubscribe tool that actually works.
The hypothetical design solutions to these problems are a little strange in an exhibition that’s essentially about marketing and communications – industries that are all too familiar with productivity targets and a culture of overworking – like the eyedrops mechanism that only works after a certain number of emails have been sent. Overall, though, the curators and creatives involved have managed to find the fun in a nebulous, un-sexy technology that’s remarkably stood the test of time.
Email is Dead is at the Design Museum in London until October 22; designmuseum.org