Is Email Dead?

At the Design Museum, London, the multinational Intuit Mailchimp presents an immersive display to explore how email will shape our future.

The category of human artefacts called ‘design’ already takes a step away from the concrete towards the abstract. As defined by Deyan Sudjic, former director of London’s Design Museum, in B is for Bauhaus, a designer is ‘not the physical maker of an object’, but someone who produces the drawings ‘that represent an object before it exists’. In this vein, fairly abstract exhibits can often be seen at the Design Museum, from maps to road signs and architectural plans.

The latest exhibition moves still one step further away from the physical object and into the virtual world. ‘Email is Dead’ tells a partial story of this digital means of written communication, only just old enough to have a history, from the first email ever sent in 1971 to its worldwide ubiquity today. The show is advertised as ‘a playful and immersive exploration of email’s transformational powers’ which will ‘explore the cultural and emotional impact of the world’s favourite communication tool and contemplate its future.’ It is presented and funded by Intuit Mailchimp, the global provider of an ‘email and marketing automations platform’, while its design was the fruit of a collaboration between the Design Museum’s curatorial team and Mailchimp’s in-house creative team, Wink. To some extent, therefore, the exhibition seems to be a corporate publicity venture.  

The Design Museum ‘works with a wide range of different types of partners’ in order to present ‘engaging free public displays’, says Josephine Chanter, Director of Audiences, because ‘we are less reliant on state funding than many other London museums.’ This comment suggests that they are short on funds. The museum was already in financial difficulties in 2019; in 2021-22, according to publicly available information, their expenditure was over £3 million more than their income. Sadly, many arts institutions in the UK are in a similar position.

Financial considerations aside, the idea of holding an exhibition about email in a design museum makes sense in that the design of the electronic message has itself changed considerably over the years, as have the cultural practices associated with it, and the very perception of the email as a distinctive genre of communication and expression. In a matter of a few decades, email has become central to the way in which an enormous number of jobs are done and in which billions of people around the world communicate with each other. According to one display in the exhibition, in 2020, over 333.6 billion emails were ‘sent by Mailchimp customers’ and in 2023 ‘there are an estimated 4.37 billion email users worldwide’. Moreover, as Mailchimp is keen to stress, ‘email marketing revenue is estimated to reach £8.7 billion’ by the end of this year.

On the other hand, it might be asked what advantage there is to presenting a physical, three-dimensional exhibition about a fundamentally two-dimensional, virtual phenomenon, and one which is concerned primarily with words, not images. Why not simply do it online? One answer is that, as noted above, the show is designed to be ‘immersive’, a full-body experience. Perhaps it is for this reason that there are no windows in any of its four rooms, making the experience somewhat claustrophobic. The uncomfortable feeling of staring at a backlit screen all day, is recreated almost too well by the way that the walls in each room are painting in a shiny colour scheme. In the first room, the walls are bright yellow – for the Mailchimp brand – with grey-blue squares suggestive of a screen or pixels; in the second room, white; in the third, dark blue – like a Word programme – with white squares; and in the fourth, light blue with white clouds at the top. A Muzak soundtrack without a melody, the sort of thing a computer might listen to, fills the air. 

Imaginary inventions at 'Email is Dead' exhibition at the Design Museum

The first two rooms contain nothing but texts printed on the walls, on placards and on screens, unintentionally showing how difficult it is to tell the history of a purely digital and verbal tool in anything other than words, and a few images. In the first room, there are some interesting facts which chart email’s progress, albeit in a scattergun way. The first spam email was sent in 1978, although ‘spam’ was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 1998; the first, smiling-face emoticon, :-), was created by the computer scientist Scott Fahlman in 1982; and in 2015, more users checked their email on mobile devices than on desktop computers, indicating how far people’s habits had changed in just a few years.

The second room, a narrow corridor, displays a collection of heart-warming stories showing how an email can have ‘the power to shift the entire trajectory of our lives’. There is a recruitment officer’s rejection letter, which inspired the recipient to set up his own ‘creative agency’. There are the husband and wife who met each other via email in their eighties. There is the ‘influential tastemaker in London’s creative scene’ whose teenage pitch to a fashion designer acts ‘as a reminder of his journey’. If you were to image that these stories were generated by AI, with the prompts ‘PR email – chicken soup for the soul’, you would be wrong. According to Christian Widlic, Mailchimp’s Group Creative Director, ‘we asked customers, we asked on social, and it’s incredible how willing people are…to share their stories.’ Gathering these emails, he said, ‘was probably the most time-consuming part of the exhibit.’ Yet given that Mailchimp itself is already using AI to draft emails, who knows how much longer real people will be writing them.

In the third room, in a further attempt to make the experience multi-sensory, there is a central pedestal on which are displayed three sculptures, put together out of materials old and new: wires, wood, felt, metal, plastic. These clunky ‘imaginary objects’ comprise a ‘Thought Transmitting Helmet’ to ‘read your thoughts and answer your emails for you’; a ‘Magic Mind Eraser’ to ‘unsend embarrassing emails’; and an ‘Email Chair’, which gives you ‘perfect emailing posture’, a back massage at the end of the email, and ‘a cushion that ejects you… when you’ve been emailing too long’. While they may be intended to be humorous, these objects seem a little kitschy, as though their designers were all tookeen to play into the culture of endless emailing which Mailchimp presumably thrives on. The same is true of a collection of black-and-white posters, displayed in a rack on the wall, whose faintly Dilbert-style cartoons portray more ‘inventions’ of the future, such as a ‘Productivity Kettle’ for making the office worker tea or coffee while they are answering emails, and a ‘Pulse Pad’ for determining whether the worker, like a malfunctioning robot, is too overheated to click the reply button.

The third room also has a small display of tablets on stands, on which, if you enter your name and email address, you can take part in Mailchimp’s ‘email personality test’. This asks questions about the participant’s sign-off habits, attitude to email and so on. Unfortunately, my answers seem to have upset the programme: when I had submitted them, the screen froze on the neon-yellow ‘100%’ page, and I never found out (perhaps Mailchimp did) what sort of emailer I was.

The Future of Email room at Design Museum's Exhibit 'Email is Dead'

The final room continues the attempt to capture a sort of embodiment of the email experience. Rather than being full of text or images, however, it is simply a room, painted light blue, with a low ceiling, completely covered in mirrors. Spread across the floor are half a dozen white objects, apparently rather uncomfortable sofas, one resembling the ‘@’ sign, one a ‘send’ arrow, and the rest clouds. Scattered among them are oversized orange paper aeroplanes. Visitors can sit awkwardly on the sofas and crane their necks up at themselves and their surroundings doubled overhead. Presumably the exhibition designers wanted the room to embody ‘blue sky thinking’, a corporate metaphor for creative ‘reflection’.
A photograph of this room, which looks as though it may have been digitally enhanced, is used as the exhibition’s cover image. In two dimensions it looks intriguing; in three, it is an anticlimax. Which just supports the conclusion to which the exhibition inadvertently leads: that experience in two pixellated dimensions is a poor substitute for three dimensions and five senses –especially if your job involves sitting at a screen all day, answering emails. If much was gained, something was also lost when human contact went digital.

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Emma Park
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